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This Is Your Brain on Drugs: Dr. Stephen Dewey Visits East Rockaway

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More than 200 students, parents and faculty members crowded into the auditorium at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School on May 1 to hear Dr. Stephen Dewey, a neuroscientist and research professor from New York University School of Medicine, give a talk titled, “The Effects of Addictive Drugs on the Human Brain.” The East Rockaway School District Prevention Task Force made the presentation possible and attendance was mandatory for all students planning to attend this year’s prom, along with a parent/guardian.  
In a very sobering presentation on the effects of a number of addictive drugs, Dr. Dewey used PET scan images to show the effects of drugs on the brain. He indicated that every drug of abuse works the same way – by increasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which increases feelings of happiness. While a cup of coffee might increase dopamine by 8 percent, he said, alcohol, depending on the dose, could increase dopamine by 1,000 to 2,000 percent, and marijuana, by 2,000 to 5,000 percent. Methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, can increase dopamine 900,000 percent. That makes it the most addictive drug, Dewey continued.

He also explained what makes some people more likely to use drugs. Some people naturally have brain dopamine that’s 5 or 6 percent higher than average. Those people, according to Dewey, are more likely to try something different.  

Dr. Dewey said addiction is something that starts in adolescence, while the brain is still developing. Marijuana, in particular, has a profound effect on the front part of the brain, called the frontal lobe. This region of the brain controls impulses and decision-making, Dewey said, so when you start smoking pot in adolescence, you arrest the ability to make adult decisions. Marijuana today, he said, is also laced with other drugs. In Dewey’s studies, he has found that almost three-quarters of the marijuana that people have shown him has been laced with methamphetamine, making it much more potent and addictive. 

“The majority of pot today has meth in it,” he said.

Dr. Dewey went on to discuss heroin and opiates. He said that opiates are “safe in the presence of pain,” but addictive otherwise.  Prolonged heroin and opiate abuse, he explained, could damage the brain much like advanced multiple sclerosis, and is irreversible.

Though the facts can be scary, Dewey said the best way to deal with preventing your child from using drugs is to engage in a simple conversation with them to find out what is going on with them and their thoughts on drugs. 

“The scariest thing is, they don’t know what they are doing and I think the best thing you can do is talk to your kids,” he said. “We know they don’t want to be lectured or told what to do.”