I’d like to point parents to a pair of very important articles about prescription painkillers that have just become available. The first one describes new animal research that suggests that even relatively mild doses of oxycodone, “comparable to what is prescribed to alleviate post-surgical pain in humans” can impair decision-making ability in a way that makes the development of an addiction more likely.
The study, which you can read about on PsychCentral, was performed at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and published in the journal Learning and Memory. Researchers tested rats on a variety of measures including the initial learning of a maze discrimination task, a memory retention test, either oxycodone or saline exposure for five days, a post-drug reminder (memory) test and subsequent spatial memory, and motor habit tests. When the drug-exposed rats were re-tested in a drug-free state they responded to new experimental challenges in “rigid, maladaptive ways”. In particular, they lost a significant amount of behavioral flexibility, or the capacity to adjust their behavior to reach goals when circumstances changed. Behavioral flexibility is an important concept in addiction studies because addicts lose the ability to change their behavior even when there is overwhelming evidence that their circumstances have changed and their lives are deteriorating. Again, in this study, drug exposure was minimal, but produced changes in brain function that persisted in some of the rats. The researchers concluded that the demonstrated impairments in decision-making “could be one reason why people continue to use or abuse the drugs, long after they are medically necessary”.
It is clear that all psychoactive substances change brain structure and function, and that developing adolescent brains are more susceptible to re-modeling as a result of substance use. This is why I recommend that parents also take a look at an article in Your Teen that explains the ways in which opioid painkillers are often too easily available to teens who are increasingly turning to cheaper and more easily accessible drugs such as heroin when their supply of prescription painkillers runs out. The article provides useful guidance about how to protect your kids from these dangerous drugs. It suggests that parents: talk with teens about the dangers of prescription painkillers–even when they are prescribed by physicians; carefully check their own medicine cabinets and clear them of prescription opiates; and, when filling a prescription, ask the pharmacist to dispense only a few of the allotted number of pills (you can go back and get more of the prescribed amount later if it is necessary to do so.)
Read more about addiction and the family in Dr. Wood’s books: Children of Alcoholism: The Struggle for Self and Intimacy in Adult Life and Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home