Neurocognitive Prerequisites for Preventing Drug Abuse

Project: Research project

Project Details


DESCRIPTION: (provided by the applicant)
Several programs for adolescent substance abuse are reportedly "effective" for
a significant number of participants; however, there is invariably a
substantial subgroup that does not respond favorably. It is critical that
underlying mechanisms for these differences are identified in order to improve
prevention efficacy. Integrity of executive cognitive function (ECF) and its
modulation of emotional arousal levels may represent significant dimensions of
regulatory processes related to risk for substance abuse (Dawes et al., 2000)
and may play a principle role in differential responses to programming. ECF and
its physiological corollaries (e.g., skin conductance response [SCR]) are
subserved by the brain's prefrontal cortex and its limbic circuitry to regulate
behavioral inhibition, sensitivity to rewards and penalties, and
decision-making. Deficits in ECF and SCRs have been associated with a variety
of behavioral disorders, including substance abuse. The premise behind the proposed study
is that differences in these neurocognitive-emotive processes also contribute
to differential responses to preventive interventions. Thus, the goal of this
study is to identify specific underlying neurocognitive components of
psychosocial risk factors related to adolescent drug abuse and to assess their
moderating effects on ability to process prevention materials under laboratory

This study will be conducted in collaboration with the ongoing preventive
intervention study at Johns Hopkins University Prevention Intervention Research
Center (JHU PIRC) within the Baltimore City Public Schools. Longitudinal data
(8 years) will be provided on intelligence, school achievement, and risk
behaviors. An initial "extreme groups validity" assessment of ECF and SCR
measures will be conducted by selecting ninth graders participating in the JHU
study; one group with high levels of delinquency and drug abuse and the other
without any. Adolescents will receive a general neuropsychological test, three
developmentally appropriate ECF tasks, and simultaneous monitoring of SCR. The
selected ECF tasks measure risky decision-making, sensitivity to consequences,
and impulsivity which are conceptually consistent with the phenomenology of
drug abuse and shown in neuroimaging studies to activate the prefrontal cortex.
These well-tested protocols have been adapted to the students' developmental
stage. The concurrent validity and predictive value of these measures will be
assessed with respect to psychosocial and behavioral factors (i.e., risk
behaviors in the 9th and 10th grades) measured by the JHU study. In a separate
session, subjects will be presented with videotaped stimulus materials from a
prominent preventive intervention, the Positive Adolescent Choices Training
(PACT), developed specifically for high-risk, minority, inner-city children.
PACT features interactive exercises guided by videotaped role plays, and has
been shown to reduce behaviors related to substance abuse (e.g., antisocial
behavior, aggression, risk-taking, poor decision- making, and school-related
problems) (Hammond and Yung, 1991). Students will be randomly assigned to two
groups; one will be exposed to these materials by a facilitator and then
presented with a series of vignettes reflective of real-life situations
involving behavioral choices, and the other will not. Instrumentation will be
used to assess decision-making skills that are potentially affected by the
curriculum. Previously tested ECF and SCRs will be related to experimental
performance to determine whether cognitive and physiological responses are
predictive of performance. The high-risk group is expected to generate lower
ECF and SCRs, and these responses will moderate effects of the experimental
stimuli on decision-making. Thus, this experiment extends beyond assessment of
correlational relationships between neurological function and behavior; it
invokes ECF and SCRs in the context of real-life situations where choices made
are affected by the ability of subjects to process prevention materials. This
study will provide valuable insights for developing preventive interventions,
individualized according to underlying pathology, for adolescents who tend to
be refractory to standard treatments.
Effective start/end date9/30/018/31/05


  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: $274,511.00
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: $238,609.00
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: $186,887.00


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