Experimentation with substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and drugs usually begins in adolescence. Teens and pre-teens who partake in activities involving addictive substances are at increased risk for dependency. Numerous studies have attempted to identify the factors that influence addictive behaviors and risk taking in adolescence. Much of the existing research points to impulsivity and inhibition as two markers for risk-taking behaviors. Other studies suggest that these behaviors are based on neurocognitive functioning patterns. The underlying mechanisms that lead young people to maladaptive behaviors must be exposed so that interventions can be designed to address those specific mechanisms and thus decrease the likelihood of negative behavior patterns in teens most at risk. To this end, Dr. Zeena Harakeh of the Interdisciplinary Social Science Department at Utrecht University in the Netherlands recently led a study that explored neurocognitive functioning and its relationship to smoking behaviors in a sample of participants ranging in age from 11 to 16 years old.
The study tracked the attention, inhibition, and impulsivity of 1,797 participants over 6 years. Harakeh looked at the onset of smoking and the persistence of smoking behaviors at three different points during the study period. The results revealed that the participants that began smoking at the youngest ages were those with the lowest levels of attention. Additionally, the teens with low levels of inhibition had higher levels of smoking initiation. More inhibited teens exhibited less smoking persistence over time. The combination of poor attention and low inhibition proved to result in earlier smoking initiation and higher rates of daily smoking over time. The results of this study are consistent with other research that demonstrates a link between cognitive functioning and risk taking and, in particular, drug and alcohol use. Harakeh pointed out that self-regulation, sustained attention, and increased inhibition appear to act as mechanisms that protect against risky behavior and in this case, smoking. Harakeh added, “This may have important clinical implications when developing and implementing antismoking interventions and programs.”
Harakeh, Z., de Sonneville, L., van den Eijnden, R. J. J. M., Huizink, A. C., Reijneveld, S. A., Ormel, J., et al. (2012). The association between neurocognitive functioning and smoking in adolescence: The TRAILS study. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029217
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