Non-Genetic Risk Factors for Weed Addiction
If you’ve read the last couple of articles, you’re up-to-date on some of the tricks addiction plays like hijacking our brain’s reward system and hibernating in our DNA. Granted, the addiction gene, a/k/a “the sleeping monster,” exists only in a small percentage of the general population’s DNA, but for those people it is a considerable risk factor. In the last article, we also touched on some non-genetic risk factors. Current research estimates that about 50% of the tendencies towards addiction are attributed to genes, which means that 50% of those tendencies aren’t genetic.
Psychological Trauma Shapes Developing Brain Circuits
The last article listed the non-genetic risk factors for addiction as age of first use, stress, poverty, trauma, behavioral disorders, and mental illness. Addiction expert Gabor Mate says in Clean, “Adverse early experiences not only induce the pain that the addict is wanting to escape, they also shape developing brain circuits in ways that predispose to addiction.” Mate believes there are no genetic risk factors for addiction, that they are all non-genetic. He believes that developing brain circuitry can be shaped by external experiences and that the importance of brain circuitry when it comes to addiction cannot be overemphasized. Here’s what Dr. Mate has to say about the roots of addiction:
Why are people addicted to drugs?
Non-genetic risk factors are composed of things we have control over and things we don’t. The most important of all the non-genetic risk factors is how old a person is when he or she first uses marijuana. Why? The answer goes back to the stop and go systems in our brain’s reward center.
The Stop and Go Systems of Adolescents
We’ll start with the go system, which is located in the brain’s posterior subcortical region. This part of the brain, according to Joanna Jacobus, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, is one of the “more primitive brain structures,” and therefore develops early. By contrast, the stop system, which is located in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, is the “center of abstract thinking, decision-making, and judgment” and lags behind the go system in development.
This lag between the go and stop systems is what makes adolescents vulnerable to addiction, but it’s also an evolutionary strategy: by separating development into stages, the brain can devote all its energy to perfecting each part. Because the very young don’t do much abstract thinking or make too many decisions for themselves, that part of the brain develops after the low-level part of the brain. In other words, the go system develops before the stop system. As the director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Joseph Franscella, says in Clean: “Kids have a double whammy. The go system rages, and the stop system has a hard time keeping up.” The stop system has trouble inhibiting the go system. Adding marijuana to this situation intensifies this problem.
The next article will continue discussing the effects weed has on the adolescent brain.