The conference is conducted by KSU’s Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery and features speakers from Harvard, Yale and the Centers for Disease Control in addition to Kennesaw State professors. Close to 200 experts in neuroscience, addiction treatment and recovery are expected to attend.
“Our goal is to bring the sciences together: behavioral, social and medical science,” said Teresa Wren Johnston, a KSU professor and founder of the school’s addiction recovery center. “We are trying to bring those perspectives together where addiction is concerned. We’re looking to educate medical folks as well as the common person.”
Neuroscience may sound complicated, but, put simply, it is the study of how the brain operates.
The conference is the first of a three-part series. This year’s edition deals with addiction, the second part will take place during the school’s 2015 spring break with a focus on treatment, while the third, set for spring break 2016, deals with recovery.
Goals of the addiction center
KSU’s addiction recovery center is aimed at ages 18 to 26, closely mirroring the ages found on a typical college campus. Johnston said some students actually come to college with addictions already in tow, having started substance abuse as early as middle school.
Addiction does not always involve drugs or alcohol. It can also mean gambling, gaming and even eating disorders. But in all cases there are common factors.
“We don’t really focus on drugs or alcohol; we focus on perception,” Johnston said. “What we understand about young adults is they are balancing the risk. Will it hurt me today? Am I invincible? For example, people say it’s risky to text and drive. The truth is, if you made it home, your perception for the risk has just decreased.”
Research is always being done on addiction and some of the latest findings will be discussed at this week’s conference at KSU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“We can use imaging technology to tell us about the brain and what parts of the brain are lighting up or being affected by substance use,” Johnston said. “But what are the limitations to it? What are we learning from the standpoint of the neurosciences? We also talk about the difference between the adolescent, young adult and the fully formed adult brain.”
How addictions form
Of course, bad habits that can become full-blown addictions can also be picked up during the college years. Johnston said Kennesaw State is somewhat protected because most students are commuters and tend to be older, but nearly 4,000 students do live on campus. The cycle of how an addiction can begin was described by Johnston and Pat Moore, alcohol and drug education coordinator at KSU.
Moore said people tend to follow those that seem to know what they’re doing, whether they actually do or not, when faced with a new situation. This need for conformity can be the first step in falling into an addiction.
“If we go to the corner of a building and look up, after a while we’d have 500 people looking up,” Moore said. “It looks like we know what we’re doing. Facebook is built on the same principal. People think if something has 500 ‘likes,’ it must be good, but that’s not true at all.”
Moore described a scale, scored from zero to four, of addiction. Most people stay at the safe levels of zero or one, but the few that trend up to level four, or full addiction, cause problems for everyone.
These are the people that cause car accidents, get kicked off of teams, suffer alcohol poisoning or get arrested, Moore explained. They are few in number but their problems can become very high-profile. Students referred for possible addiction issues meet with Moore to see if treatment is needed.
Moore won’t be speaking at the conference but will be involved. He speaks at conferences throughout the country on a frequent basis.
Overall, organizers such as Johnston hope the conference can further knowledge about addiction and ways to combat it in young adults.
“I think we are still on the cutting edge of looking at how the brain impacts the decisions we make, the behaviors we develop,” Johnston said. “And I for one am excited about merging all the sciences together in a way we can participate with the student population at Kennesaw and across the country.”