This is your brain … and this is your brain on drugs

Most know the general consequences of drug use. But a lab on campus is conducting research to uncover the specific effects certain drugs can have on adolescents and young adults.

Dr. Cheryl Kirstein has received grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that fund research in the cognitive and neurological science area of the psychology department.

With a team of five graduate students, six undergraduate volunteers and two technicians, Kirstein, the director of the cognitive and neurological science area, is making headway using animals to learn about how drug use affects the brains of adolescent users.

“There hasn’t been any studies to see the effects of drug use in teens and people in their 20s,” Kirstein said. “During this time the brain is still developing, (and) drug use may help develop disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and even depression.”

Kirstein said the lab’s research focuses mainly on the effects of cocaine, alcohol and nicotine, but that they also do a little research on marijuana.

The lab conducts two types of studies. They do neurochemical research studies, which studies what drug chemicals do to the brain. They also conduct behavioral studies to see how the animals react after drug use.

Kim Badanich, a USF graduate student, has been working in the lab for four years. She said that the research Kirstein spoke about is their next step. Badanich said, they are looking at adolescent drug use and addiction.

Badanich said she just finished a study for her master’s that used adolescent, and adult rats. She separated them into groups — one with a stable environment that was given saline, and the other cocaine. She said study showed that adolescent rats preferred the cocaine environment.

“Basically it showed that 14- and 15-year olds should not begin using cocaine,” Badanich said. “Not that they should at any age.”

Badanich said studies show that people who begin using drugs as an adolescent are 90 percent more likely to develop an addiction than people who begin using them as an adult.

Their research points toward a reason for this.

“We’ve found that adolescents are more attracted to the drugs that adults are adverse to and that the younger ones prefer higher levels,” Kirstein said.

This may be because, as Kirstein and Badanich have both found in their research, adolescents release higher levels of dopamine after drug use than adults.

Kirstein said the release of dopamine produces a similar feeling to that of falling in love. Kirstein also said a similar effect occurs after eating chocolate, but on a smaller scale.

Studies done by the lab also suggest that a cue for a drug may release dopamine before the drug is even ingested. Kirstein explained that these cues are things a user may associate with the drug, such as seeing the person who they buy it from or even seeing a joint.

Badanich said another graduate student just completed a study using alcohol cues and they found an increased response in dopamine levels as a result.

Badanich is most interested in research on how cues affect drug abuse.

Kirstein said she wants to discover what differences in the brain make someone develop an addiction. She also hopes to conduct more research on the long-term effects of drugs and the effects of adolescent use.

Kirstein said the lab is being considered for another grant because of the research they conduct on adolescents since few studies have been conducted in that area.