A Word About Drug Use
At LEARNING INSIGHTS we have experience of seeing individuals who have taken, or are using various forms of recreational drugs. These can have significant impact upon the capacity to learn at school and perform at work, so we understand how helping individuals (as well as co-workers, parents and teachers) to understand the impact of these can be helpful.
Recreational drug use has been known for some time to induce a variety of cognitive shortcomings, i.e. limiting the capacity of an individual to think clearly, problem solve effectively and remember. More recently, these learning deficits have been looked at more closely and it has now been established that the very taking of the drugs causes an inflexibility or lack of ability to learn new things.
Drugs are now understood to impair the brain’s flexibility, making it difficult to change habits. In fact, recent research is suggesting that the habit of drug taking itself cannot/or is much harder than has been understood to be changed because of the effects of the drug on brain flexibility. It is now being understood for the first time, why individuals say they want to stop their bad habits, but seem unable to do so. We are beginning to understand that an area of the brain where the drugs have an effect is exactly the same part of the brain that is needed to learn, adapt and change old habits – and so stop using drugs. The suggestion is that once you start taking drugs, you cannot update your behaviour, or it is much harder than expected, even if you want to.
The area that needs to function to change habits is in the prefrontal lobes and specifically a small area called the nucleus accumbens. It is at this site that the neurotransmitter, glutamate (which is central to the normal, flexible functioning of the synapses in this area), cannot be absorbed by the glial cells, which use the glutamate to transmit important messages sent by the neurons in this region. Researchers are finding the synapses (the pathways which transmit the messages) are unusually rigid in drug users and it is the drugs that damage components of the synapses. Kalivas and Volvow, researchers into addiction, propose this loss of flexibility prevents addicts from fully using the information coming in from the prefrontal cortex to curb their drug habits. So even if they want to stop using drugs, they find it hard to alter their behaviours. This was assumed to be part of the ‘addictive’ behaviour, now we are beginning to understand that it is not only the addiction an individual may have to battle, but also the potential damage the drug has done to their capacity to learn.
So, here is one very good reason for giving up a drug habit, if it stops you ever learning another habit!
How important is it to be able to learn a habit? Well, remember, it is habit that lets you walk up stairs, drive a car, ride a bike, do more than one thing at the same time……walking and chewing gum is the classic!
Scientific American March/April 2013
If you have concerns about your child, a friend or co-worker and you would like to talk about how we might help, in the strictest of confidence, please CONTACT US directly.