LISTEN: Adolescent Addiction and Its Impact on the Brain

Sep 13, 2016

FMRI Brain Scan
Credit By DrOONeil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Drug overdose deaths are increasing in Kentucky, according to the state's office of Drug Control Policy, and some addicts start using at a very young age.  This can have a profound impact on brain development.

It started when Matt Lacefield was 8 years old.

“…and I drank one cup of beer it was gross, and I thought I was the coolest kid ever. And then a couple years down the line, not until I was 12 years-old did I ever try marijuana and then it shot off from there and it was prescription drugs and anything that I could get my hands on, anything that would make me feel different. I loved it,” said Lacefield

But, how does a 12 year-old get this stuff? It was his brother who introduced him to drugs, but Matt said he did it to protect him.

“He was into harder stuff too he just didn’t want me to be into it, he thought he was being protective over me… almost like a father figure since our dad died.”

Matt’s dad died in a car wreck. He was drinking and driving. Matt’s mom moved a few times while he was growing up, making it tough to on his school work.

But, he didn’t seem to have trouble finding drugs, from pot to amphetamines to opioids.

“I had a friend who’s mom had cancer and she kept giving us the oxy, because she didn’t want them, and we’d just do them like crazy.”

Things kept spiraling out of control.

“I had overdosed 7 times by the time I was 15 years-old,” said Lacefield

Matt’s repeated overdoses at such a young age led those treating him in hospitals to think he was trying to kill himself.  He wasn’t forced into rehab until his the last of his 7 overdoses.

“I had aspirated, I had vomited and it went back into my lungs.”

“They found me in the park in Butler County. The only thing I remember was partying and then waking up in intensive care with two tubes down my throat and them telling me to cough… because they were pumping my lungs. They sent me to my first rehab after that.”

At 15 years old, the first bout of rehab didn’t take. Matt found himself next hitting meth, hard.

“I had been up for weeks at a time, I looked like death, I felt like death. I had been busted with a meth lab by the time I was seventeen years old, I got busted again at 20 years old.”

Matt’s been in jail and now rehab… twice. And it finally seems to have stuck. He’s working as a counselor at a Paducah treatment facility and attending West Kentucky Community and Technical College. He wants to be a social worker and one day a therapist, but he said it’s hard.

“I’m slower than some people at reading and writing… and comprehending sometimes. But that’s not going to hold me back.”

Matt Lacefield

There are many factors that can make learning hard for Matt. He was shuffled around schools at a young age, he spent time in and out of the hospital and then there’s the drug use.

“You know they say when you start using drugs, your whole process of growing up changes mentally. If you start using drugs at 12 years old, you’re stuck at the 12 year-old mind frame, you might grow up and be in a man’s body but you’ll be stuck at (that age) So, I feel like sometimes I slip back.”

One person that has told Matt his development may have stalled some when he started using drugs is Dr. Pat Withrow, director of outreach for Baptist Health Paducah.  He’s been talking to adolescents around the region with Matt about the impact of early drug use on brain.

“The brain actually does not mature until the mid-20’s. 22-27 I tell most folks,” said Withrow.

Dr. Withrow uses images of MRI scans to illustrate to adolescents the progression of brain development. The scans are of normal brains ranging from a five year-old to a 20 year-old. The color patterns evolve as maturation occurs. The last portion of the brain to mature, according to Withrow is the frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe is where judgment occurs. Withrow tells students, “When you’re 15 years old you don’t have a lot of judgment.”

“Basically they are functioning with their mid-brain which is the reflex brain. They take risks, they thrill seek and don’t put a lot of thought in what they do,” said Withrow.

Referring to psychological studies Withrow said during development not all adolescents will make risky, reflexive, decisions. Withrow said nearly 20 percent of children have little trouble with judgment, “if a parent has one of these, bless their hearts. They’re lucky,” said Withrow.

However, he said 42% of adolescents are living in “chaos” all the time. Those children have trouble making decisions with proper judgment and are at higher risk of developing an addiction.

There are some genetic tendencies that may put a child at a higher risk to develop a drug addiction, but Withrow said the child’s environment and level of parental involvement play major roles in a path to normal brain development or one beset with challenges caused by drug addiction at a young age.  

However, like Matt Lacefield’s recovery from life defined by drugs, Withrow said there is hope for those who have found themselves addicted to narcotics.  But, the damage done to the brain can make life much harder.

Withrow said relapse rates are much higher when there is an early age of onset. And in some cases substance abuse can lower one’s intelligence quotient (IQ). So, Withrow said recovery will be hard but it isn’t hopeless.