NIDA Seeks New Keys to Preventing Drug Abuse Among Adolescents

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NIDA Director, Alan I. Leshner

Research has shown that some children raised in chaotic or disadvantaged environments make successful transitions to adulthood while others raised in similar circumstances go on to abusing drugs during adolescence. NIDA has been widening the scope of its risk and resilience research to find out why this is so.

Much of our research into the origins of drug abuse has focused on the psychological, behavioral, family, and social factors that are associated with drug use in children and adolescents. This research has identified a constellation of risk factors, such as shy, aggressive, and impulsive personality traits, chaotic family environments, ineffective parenting, poor academic performance, and deviant peer influences, that can lead to later drug involvement. Past research also has shown that certain factors, such as a stable temperament, strong family bonds, and school achievement, are associated with protection from drug abuse.

Thus, for several years, NIDA has been emphasizing a dual approach to developing preventive interventions that addresses both risk and protective factors. This approach has led to the development of effective drug abuse prevention programs for general populations, for children at risk of drug abuse, and for children who may already be experimenting with drugs or displaying other behavioral problems. However, we need to know much more about how protective factors work in real-life situations and if these factors continue to be helpful in different life circumstances to understand why most young people with many risk factors in their lives do not go on to use and abuse of drugs. Knowing more about protective factors and how they interact with risk factors to foster either vulnerability or resilience as young people face different stresses in their lives will enable us to develop drug abuse prevention programs that can more effectively reduce risk and drug abuse in the lives of young people.

Over the past few years, NIDA-funded scientists have begun looking more intently at the interaction of these risk and protective factors. In this issue of NIDA NOTES, we report on a long-term study that indicates that an accumulation of protective factors occurring in several areas of adolescents' lives can help shield youths from the harmful effects of earlier family risk factors. (See "Protective Factors Can Buffer High-Risk Youths From Drug Use")

Among other studies, a comprehensive, long-term, multifactor study involving high-risk youths is being conducted by Dr. Ralph Tarter, who directs the NIDA-funded Center for Education and Drug Abuse Research at the University of Pittsburgh. This study has been identifying many different biological, psychological, and environmental risk and protective factors and has been trying to determine how they interact in an individual to predict vulnerability or resistance to drug abuse.

To encourage more drug abuse prevention research that addresses both risk and protective factors, we formed a NIDA-wide resilience and risk work group, which is led by Dr. Zili Sloboda, who directs the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research (DEPR), and Dr. Meyer Glantz, associate director for science, DEPR. The work group brought together 15 leading epidemiologists and prevention researchers from medical schools and universities across the country to meet with me and NIDA policy and prevention research staff to discuss how to increase the use of resilience and risk data in the development of more effective prevention interventions.

A variety of research findings has shown that the family can be a strong influence on both vulnerability and resilience to drug abuse. Therefore, the work group made its strongest recommendation for more prevention programs that focus on the family, not merely as a medium for intervention with youths but as the direct target of interventions. Such interventions should build on the success of previous prevention models that have addressed deficits in family functioning and fostered the development of family strengths, particularly parental skills, the work group indicated.

Building on the work group's recommendations, NIDA's Prevention Research Branch has been augmenting its research on the family's role in vulnerability, resilience, and prevention. Earlier this year, more than 20 leading family prevention researchers and NIDA staff met

to discuss ways to improve future research on preventing drug abuse through family interventions. At this meeting, which was organized by Dr. Rebecca Ashery of DEPR, participants also emphasized the need for family drug abuse prevention interventions to improve parents' abilities to assess how their children are doing and set appropriate limits.

NIDA has already acted on the recommendations made at these two meetings by issuing two program announcements. Drug Abuse Prevention Through Family Intervention (PA-96-013) supports the development of new interventions aimed at reducing risk factors and fostering protective factors among families who have members at risk of abusing drugs. Drug Abuse Prevention Intervention Research for Women and Minorities (PA-96-018) seeks more research to identify and address risk and protective factors that may be associated with norms and life experiences that are rooted in culture and gender. We also plan to encourage additional research to identify risk and resiliency factors and apply them in new prevention approaches.

The goal of our increased emphasis on studying protection from and resilience to drug abuse is to determine the configuration of individual, social, cultural, and gender-based factors that increase risk or strengthen resistance to drug abuse. This knowledge will give us additional tools we can use to develop a full range of more effective prevention interventions to help protect culturally diverse young people of both sexes from drug abuse and addiction.