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Pellissier Speaker to Discuss Substance Abuse and the Adolescent Brain

February 12, 2018
Professor Sandra A. Brown in her office in front of a bookshelf filled with books.
Professor Sandra A. Brown

California’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana and the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis have many parents worried that their own teenagers might succumb to the temptations of drugs and alcohol.

At this year’s installment of the Vital and Alice Pellissier Family Distinguished Lecture Series — “Alcohol, Drugs and the Adolescent Brain” — concerned parents and curious members of the community can hear Professor Sandra A. Brown explain what really happens to adolescent brains when teens inhale, ingest or imbibe.

It’s a subject Brown knows well as vice chancellor for research at UC San Diego and a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry. She’s spent decades studying the effects of drugs and alcohol on adolescent development and the adolescent brain.

“I’m quite interested in understanding how alcohol and drugs affect development and how this affects treatment for alcohol and drug problems,” Brown said.

At this year’s Pellissier Lecture — a jargon-free science talk intended for general audiences — Brown will highlight major findings from her decades of research. The talk, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, at the Art Kamangar Center at the Merced Theatre.

“Early on, I focused on understanding special problems and issues with adolescents and young adults,” Brown said. “I looked at how they fare after treatment and how they get better. We already knew that for adults, addiction could cause transient and longer-lasting effects.”

Though teenagers are resilient, Brown discovered that the neurocognitive impact on teens could also be significant.

“Even modest amounts of drug and alcohol use can have short-term effects — one week to a month — on the thinking ability of youth,” Brown says. “Since it’s their job to be in school and learn, we need a deeper appreciation of the fact that recreational substance use could have an impact on thinking abilities that could be a detriment to school performance.”

Even modest amounts of drug and alcohol use can have short-term effects...on the thinking ability of youth.

Sandra A. Brown
Vice Chancellor for research at UC San Diego

Since teenage brains are still developing, substance abuse at an early age can also have long-term consequences as teens progress into adulthood.

“Early heavy use influences brain development. This is especially true in frontal regions of brain,” Brown said. “Frontal lobes are involved in planning and self-control, some of the very things we think of as important during adolescent development.”

Though findings like these may prove worrisome, Brown sounds a more hopeful note when discussing teens and recovery.

“Many youths experiment with alcohol and drugs, and the vast majority work their way out of alcohol and drug use without ever receiving treatment,” Brown said. “There are many different ways. There’s not a single pathway to success.”

Brown’s talk will also highlight two ongoing NIH-funded efforts to monitor the health and behavior of youth over a decade.

“The idea is to take a look at youth before any of them use alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or any other substance, and then see what happens as some of them begin to use those substances over the course of adolescence,” Brown said.

However, Brown expects this study to uncover more than just factors associated with substance abuse.

“We’re following these youths on an annual basis to understand what leads to substance involvement,” Brown said. “But we’ll also be able to track other risks and disorders that unfold over adolescence, like obesity and mental health problems.”

She also notes that this study represents a new way of accelerating research that the government has funded.

“This project uses a new model for doing science called open science,” Brown said. “This means all data we gather will be released annually to the worldwide scientific community. We’re making this all available to get answers to scientific questions faster, and in doing so, ensure transparency and replicability of studies and findings.”

The annual Vital and Alice Pellissier Distinguished Speaker Series was made possible by a generous gift from the Pellissier family to UC Merced.

Attendees should RSVP online by Feb. 16 to reserve their space. For information, call 209-228-RSVP or email