Substance Abuse and the Impulsive Adolescent Brain: Components of Suicide Risk

Substance Abuse and the Impulsive Adolescent Brain: Components of Suicide Risk

Posted: September 24, 2012
Substance Abuse and the Impulsive Adolescent Brain: Components of Suicide Risk

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From The Quarterly, Summer 2012

One in five adolescents in the U.S. aged 17 and under uses illicit drugs; one in three drinks alcohol, and of those, one in 10 binge drink. Particularly problematic at a time when their brains are still developing, these activities coincide with a huge spike in suicide attempts in this age group. Dr. Dougherty’s particular focus is impulsive behaviors. Most brain and behavior disorders have symptoms of impulsivity, and impulsivity is the route leading to many problems, including drug abuse and suicide.


To examine how substance use develops, the Dougherty team has recruited 500 pre-adolescents, age 10 to 12, who are not yet drug users, but are from families at risk due to parental drinking. They will be assessed every six months for five years to monitor their development, stressors, family environment and their experimentation with alcohol and drugs. The study will also attempt to determine whether impulsivity triggers substance use or vice versa as well as to characterize normal development.


One theory being tested is whether people with higher impulsivity entering pre-adolescence are at a greater risk for developing later problems, including behavioral problems and substance use, based on measures that assess cognitive processes that the researchers believe are related to impulsivity.


Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and the fourth among children 10 to 14 years old. Females make more suicide attempts, but males are four times more likely to complete the suicide. This, too, is under study by the Dougherty group, in a trial looking at a comparable number of subjects of each sex, assessing suicidal behaviors, treatments and impulsivity as they go into crisis and the presence or absence of psychiatric risk factors.

These studies are attempting to identify the paths of suicide and drug abuse. Does an increase in suicidal behaviors result in more drug use, or does drug use lead to more suicidal behaviors? The research is also looking into protective factors: What are those things in an environment that might be used in prevention programs or interventions to decrease the risks of developing suicide and drug abuse behaviors?

Donald M. Dougherty, Ph.D.

William and Marguerite Wurzbach Distinguished Professor

Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Department of Psychiatry

Director, Neurobehavioral Research Laboratory and Clinic

Co-Director, Research Residency Program

University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio