The traditional approach to drug abuse prevention has been to urge youth to withstand peer pressure by saying no to drugs and alcohol.
Yet students in middle school and high school remain highly vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, teenage years are a likely period for experimentation with such substances.
At The University of Arizona, professor Kris Bosworth and her colleagues are training science teachers and counselors – who work for the Sunnyside, Marana and Tucson Unified school districts – to take a new approach to prevention education.
The Smith Scholars program involves a more collaborative approach and also a more explicit discussion about ways that drug and alcohol abuse can create hampering effects in the brain and other organs.
As part of the program, educators are learning how to best work together to incorporate teachings on the influence of different psychosocial environments, the genetic predisposition for certain addictions as well as explanations about abuse and addictive behavior that are based in neuroscience.
"The information within the curriculum is what's new – it really is relevant information," said Bosworth, UA educational leadership department head who initiated the program with the University's psychology department.
The point is to help youth realize that while the risks and dangers may not be immediately tangible, they are real, said Lee Ryan, an associate professor of psychology who is working with Bosworth.
The program's foundation is a curriclum developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Smith Scholars are learning basic science behind prevention in addition to brain chemistry and how the brain functions with and without the effects of drugs and alcohol. The scholars are also learning how addictive behaviors influence the reward system in the brain.
"The National Institute on Drug Abuse feels very strongly that providing people with information about how drugs actually affect brain function is really important," said Ryan, who is also an Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute associate professor and director of the Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratories, both at the UA.
"Even their cravings for these drugs are really a function of how the drugs are changing brain functions, and that is something we want to help them understand," Ryan said.
Bosworth also said that incorporating such lessons in biology and other sciences courses makes sense.
"But this is not something many counselors and science teachers are trained in," she said.
"In science, they're going to be teaching about brain physiology anyhow, so it's not a huge leap to tie in drug prevention," Bosworth said. "This is taking the very best science and incorporating it into the curriculum."
Danielle Schroeder, a science teacher at Mountain View High School, said such a program is beneficial, especially because some of her students have questioned her about drugs.
"It's not like we're pulling them out of class for this – but we're studying it scientifically," said Schroeder, a two-time UA alum who teaches anatomy, biology and physiology.
"Providing evidence-based example is a good way of getting in touch with the students," she said.
"We're not just saying cocaine makes you jittery but this is how it happens on a neurological level," Schroeder added. "This allows them to draw their own conclusions."
For that reason and others, the program serves a critical function, said Bosworth, who also holds the Lester L. and Roberta D. Smith Endowed Chair in Education. The donor-supported chair is funding the Smith Scholars program.
What the program facilitators want to try and avoid is the tendency toward experimentation. Those involved in the Smith Scholars program believe that if youth begin to understand the consequences of use and abuse – at the neurological level – that they will make appropriate choices about drugs and alcohol.
Participants will also get tours of neuroimaging and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, laboratories at the UA during the program, which began in January and will run through March.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the earlier adolescents use drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to become abusers and to develop dependencies.
But the agency also reported that adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 who perceived a health risk associated with marijuana use were less likely to use the drug.
"It helps teenagers to see the negative affects of taking drugs – that this is not just something that makes them feel good and then it's over," Ryan said. "Helping them understand that they are taking something that will be damaging to their brain in the long run is very helpful for them."
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications