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Strong Attention Skills Can Help Some Teens Avoid Substance Use Problems

Strong Attention Skills Can Help Some Teens Avoid Substance Use Problems

New research suggests teens with strong executive attention skills — the ability to focus on task and ignore distractions — are more likely to avoid substance abuse issues after early drug experimentation.

University of Oregon researchers say that the positive traits are components of a strong working memory which helps teens stay on task and process relevant goal-oriented information.

The study, led by Atika Khurana, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, is published online in the quarterly journal Development and Psychopathology.

In the research, a collaboration with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, investigators analyzed findings from a long-term study of 382 adolescents in a mostly at-risk urban population. The results provide a rare, early view of adolescents’ entry into the use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.

They focused on 11- to 13-year-old children as they began to explore risky and sensation-seeking experiences that often mark the road to independence and adulthood.

Previous studies generally have relied on adult recall of when individuals began experimenting, with early drug use thought to be a marker of later substance abuse problems.

“Not all forms of early drug use are problematic,” Khurana said.

“There could be some individuals who start early, experiment, and then stop. And there are some who could start early and go on into a progressive trajectory of continued drug use. We wanted to know what separates the two.”

During four assessments, participants provided self-reports of drug use in the previous 30 days.

Four working memory tests also were conducted:

  • Corsi block tapping, in which subjects viewed identical blocks that lit up randomly on a screen and tapped each box in reverse order of the lighting sequence;
  • a digit-span test where numbers shown are to be repeated in reverse order;
  • a letter two-back test, in which subjects identify specific letters in time-sensitive sequences;
  • and a spatial working-memory task where hidden tokens must be found quickly within sets of four to eight randomly positioned boxes on a computer screen.

Researchers discovered that early drug experimentation more likely to lead into progressive drug use among young people whose impulsive tendencies aren’t kept in check by strong working memory ability.

“Later assessments of the participants, who have now reached late adolescence, are being analyzed, but it appears that the compulsive progression, not just the experimentation, of drug use is likely to lead to disorder,” Khurana said.

“Prefrontal regions of the brain can apply the brakes or exert top-down control over impulsive, or reward-seeking urges,” Khurana said.

“By its nature, greater executive attention enables one to be less impulsive in one’s decisions and actions because you are focused and able to control impulses generated by events around you.

“What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors.”

“The findings suggest new approaches for early intervention since weaknesses in executive functioning often underlie self-control issues in children as young as three years old,” she said.

“A family environment strong in structured routines and cognitive stimulation could strengthen working memory skills,” Khurana said.

For older children, interventions could be built around activities that encourage social competence and problem-solving skills in combination with cognition-building efforts to increase self-control and working memory.

The latter allows people to temporarily store, organize, and manipulate mental information and is vital for evaluating consequences of decisions.

“We need to compensate for the weakness that exists, before drug experimentation starts, to help prevent the negative spiral of drug abuse,” Khurana said.

Source: University of Oregon

Young person turning down drugs photo by shutterstock.

Strong Attention Skills Can Help Some Teens Avoid Substance Use Problems

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Strong Attention Skills Can Help Some Teens Avoid Substance Use Problems. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 3 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.