It's the changing, developing brain that's vulnerable, and we simply must deter use among our adolescents, or at least delay use as long as possible."
CHES’s minor in addiction and recovery studies is based on science that can help prevent and treat this devastating and long‑misunderstood health issue.
Scientific evidence shows that 40 to 60 percent of addiction is genetic, just as diabetes, cancer and other diseases are genetically linked. Yet for centuries, people viewed addiction as a moral or character deficit — a stigma that kept sufferers from seeking treatment, and professionals from developing treatments for fear of being seen as sympathetic to the vices of drugs and alcohol.
More recently, science has shown that addiction results from conditions of the brain. In 2012, Dr. Tricia Witte, a licensed clinical psychologist with practice in the areas of violence, trauma and substance abuse, joined the faculty of the human development and family studies department to establish the minor in addiction and recovery studies based on science.
“There is an entire body of information,” she says, “that is the result of objective and empirical study, which has been gathered without bias. We want students and the public to have the objective scientific information that will help them make and promote good decisions.”
Much education regarding addiction is available to teens, parents, teachers and graduate students, she says, but not to undergraduates. Her mission is to fill that gap with the best scientific information available.
One of Witte’s first steps in building the program was to seek an alliance with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), a division of the National Institutes of Health. NIDA’s mission is to raise awareness of the science of addiction among teens, college students, parents and the general public in hopes of altering perceptions and behaviors. Witte was the first to approach NIDA to request collaboration on an undergraduate curriculum, and NIDA has been enthusiastic and supportive. Together NIDA and Witte bring the soundest scientific information to students. And as a guest blogger on the NIDA for Teens website, Witte presents the best information for teens and showcases the addictions minor to prospective college students.
Recent studies show that addiction is a developmental illness or disorder, Witte says, and that more than 80 percent of people who are addicted began their addictions as adolescents. “It’s the changing, developing brain that’s vulnerable,” she says, “and we simply must deter use among our adolescents, or at least delay use as long as possible.” She adds that adolescent addiction often goes undetected because teens — with youth and strength on their side — typically function better in spite of their addiction than adults do, at least in the short term.
Advances in neuroscience have shown that nonchemical activities — such as excessive videogame playing, gambling, eating and shopping — can affect the brain’s reward center, just as drugs and alcohol do, and are just as dangerous.
Witte says current research shows that prevention cannot be targeted just to individuals but must follow an ecological model in which everyone is engaged in efforts to address addiction. “It’s important for schools to adopt high-profile, zero-tolerance policies for drug use. Neighborhoods should draw on the strength of community, watching out for each other’s children and for dangerous behavior. We should work to make parents aware that it’s important to monitor children’s behavior and set limits. And we should have conversations with our youth and encourage kids to ask questions.”
Under Witte’s leadership, the addictions program has grown quickly, and she has several studies underway that will add to the science. One seeks to examine the connections between trauma and binge behaviors such as drinking or eating. Another measures whether taekwondo training helps adolescents develop self-control that could translate into protections against addiction. She is also conducting pre- and post-testing of students in the addiction courses to determine whether education alters the stigma and negative attitudes toward substance-abuse disorders.