No one arrives in the world with a perfect family or a perfect brain, and we're not meant to—our brains are designed to adapt as we go through life. As individuals, families, and communities, our goal is to build resilience, starting in the earliest years, to withstand the ongoing stresses we all face to varying extents throughout life.
To accomplish this, we need the ability to intervene, both formally and informally, across the lifespan—whether prenatally or in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or old age. The goal is to impact the trajectory in a positive direction to reduce the burden of toxic stress on individuals, families, and governments.
SENSITIVE PERIODS OF RISK
Many factors increase a person’s risk to develop an addiction. These include both genetics and life experiences that occur at sensitive periods in brain development. Two key periods in particular—early childhood and adolescence—are critical in the development of addiction.
Nurturing relationships early in life help us develop strong Brain Architecture that decreases our risk of developing an addiction or other mental or physical illnesses later in life. Toxic Stress in the early years can lay faultlines in our brain architecture, altering the development of connections in the brain and the expression of specific genes. These factors increase risk for later health problems. As a society, investing in early childhood is an especially effective strategy for reducing addiction and other illnesses in future generations. For more information on how early brain development impacts lifelong health, read the Brain Story.
Research clearly shows that most adults with addictions first developed problems with addictive substances and behaviours in adolescence or young adulthood. In part, this has to do with circumstance: in this developmental period of risk-taking and experimentation, and as they gain independence from their parents, adolescents have greater access to alcohol, drugs, and potentially addictive experiences like pornography or video games. (Not everyone who abuses addictive substances or behaviours develops an addiction, which is explained by differences in Resilience.)
Additionally, in this stage of development, the parts of the brain responsible for Air Traffic Control (suppressing impulsivity, making decisions, and providing executive control) are undergoing considerable change and are not yet fully mature. Meanwhile, the brain’s reward-and-motivation circuits are at their most active during the adolescent years: experiences that feel good feel especially good to the adolescent. Thus, in adolescence our brains are attuned to seeking rewarding experiences, but the air traffic control functions may not be fully in place to limit these experiences in the face of probable harm. Furthermore, the air traffic control system is still being shaped by life experiences—meaning that repeated use of alcohol, drugs, food, sex, etc. can impair the development of effective air traffic control functions. These changes can be long-term and will take increasing effort to reverse as this system matures.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a detailed chapter about the neurobiology of addiction in their report Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Download Chapter 2: "The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction" for more information. Download the complete report here.
The best preventive strategies involve the continued involvement of caring adults throughout the adolescent years. Read more in Adolescence.
Neurobiology of Addiction: A Reward Deficit, Stress-Surfeit, & Executive-Function Disorder
The Impact of Early Adversity on Parenting
BREAKING THE INTERGENERATIONAL CYCLE OF ADDICTION AND OTHER MENTAL ILLNESSES
Without sufficient supports in our communities, generation after generation is likely to develop addictions and other mental illnesses. We know that Toxic Stress disrupts brain development in ways that increase risk for addiction later in life. We also know that, in Alberta, the two most common triggers of toxic stress in children are parental mental illness and parental substance use disorders. For example, if an ill caregiver is unable to provide serve-and-return experiences to a child, the resulting toxic stress increases the probability that the child will develop an addiction or other mental health problem as an adult. If that adult has children, and no interventions are available to offer the parent and child support, the cycle can continue.