URI professor’s study seeks better treatment for adolescent addiction

College of Health Sciences Professor Sarah Feldstein Ewing presented groundbreaking study at NIH Capstone Conference

KINGSTON, R.I. — March 2, 2021 — Adolescent brains are developmentally distinct from adults, resulting in different reasons for engaging in risky behavior like substance abuse, which makes it difficult for clinicians to know how to approach addiction treatment with younger patients. While they require different approaches to treatment, adolescents often receive addiction treatment based on adult models, limiting its effectiveness.

A University of Rhode Island College of Health Sciences professor and neuro scientist is aiming to find better approaches to treating adolescent addiction. Clinical Psychology Professor Sarah Feldstein Ewing, the College’s endowed Prochaska Professor of Population Health, started as a clinical psychologist treating adolescents engaging in heavy alcohol and cannabis use. She found the common frameworks used to treat adults were not hitting the mark with younger patients, who often have different motivations for engaging in such risky behavior.

“We’re treating kids who have been drinking for maybe two years, and we’re talking about relapse and asking kids to abstain,” said Feldstein Ewing. “These concepts that may make sense if you’ve been drinking for 30 years are a little more far-fetched if you’re 15 and just binge drinking over prom weekend. Some of the kids we’ve been working with are first-generation cannabis users or drinkers who got in a car accident and got arrested. Even to those who have been using chronically — every day or every other day — relapse is kind of a weird idea if you’re 15 or 16. It’s just so new to them, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about these concepts when you’re so young.”

The use of adult-centric treatment protocols is problematic because adolescents face significantly different conditions in addiction treatment, including distinct biological and neurodevelopmental stages, unique sociodevelopmental concerns, distinctive addiction trajectories, and, in turn, disparate treatment goals and outcomes. Feldstein Ewing is seeking new approaches to treatment, and presented her study at the National Institutes of Health Science of Behavior Change 10-year Capstone Conference, which brings together neuro researchers from across the country to celebrate NIH-funded behavior change research over the last decade. Feldstein Ewing was one of just three researchers to present empirical evidence studies at the virtual conference on Feb. 22.

“Being asked to present at the Capstone Conference is the best thing I could hope for. It’s a really big deal,” Feldstein Ewing said. “There are not a lot of people who bring together two different areas of study — behavioral neuroscience with behavioral treatment. These are the most cutting edge people in this area.”

Feldstein Ewing’s own cutting-edge study looks at the neural response of the adolescent brain to determine which areas of the brain are activated in the course of behavioral treatment sessions. In her most recent study, adolescents are placed in a MRI scanner before and after they receive one of two behavioral treatments — “mindfulness” and “motivational Interviewing.” Feldstein Ewing plays back therapists’ statements from the sessions to see what parts of the brain blood flows to, which is a marker of which areas of the brain are activating.

“When you look at something, blood flows to the part of the brain that helps you see that. If you see someone familiar, blood flows to the part of the brain that recognizes faces,” she said. “When we play back therapists’ language, we can see what parts are activating for kids, and that tells us which treatments are meaningful and which are not. When we examine which part of the brain lights up, we can figure out how to make treatment better.”

Feldstein Ewing began her study — funded by a $1.8 million, five-year grant from NIH — at Oregon Health & Science University and brings this and her other NIH-funded work to URI, where she began in the fall 2020 semester. She is now establishing relationships with researchers at Brown University to continue her work with MRIs to see what parts of the brain adolescents are using in a new developmental neuroscience-informed behavioral therapy that she has developed from her past 15 years of work.

“Kids and adults’ brains respond in totally different ways. Adults mostly have responses in areas of reward – when you get that reward, your feelings of craving are satiated,” she said. “For adults it’s more that they can’t help it; they have these powerful cravings. With kids, it’s not that they’re trying to satisfy cravings. They’re using because they went to a party and there was weed there, or they were hanging out with friends and drinking because that’s what was available. It’s more of an exploratory, experimental use rather than this chronic urge to use.

Adolescents are still very much figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Thinking about changing their behavior is more in that domain.”

Focusing on the developmental neuroscience of the brain is likely to improve treatments in adolescents.

“Treatments have really been developed for these chronic urge-to-use adult users, and not these adolescent experimenters who made terrible choices but were really more contained early in their trajectory,” Feldstein Ewing said. “So these treatments were not working at all for these kids. Adults already don’t respond all that well to existing behavioral treatments, and in kids, these treatments are about half as effective. So I thought what are we missing? Why are we not using what we know about the brain to help make these treatments better?”

The goal is to use adolescents’ own instincts to influence behavior change, which Feldstein Ewing plans to explore further in a subsequent study. Adolescent brains are much more adaptable, allowing teenagers to more easily change their behavior to fit in with their friends than with adults. Tapping into those skills, Feldstein Ewing plans to create self-reflection areas for adolescents where they can focus on behaviors they need to change. By scanning their brains before and after such a therapy session, she can determine whether the interventions are stimulating the parts of the brain needed to affect change.

“They are really flexible and much better at critiquing behavior or critiquing a hypothesis. The whole intervention is trying to figure out how to bolster those instincts,” Feldstein Ewing said. “You can really organize kids around social justice causes, for example, so we are trying to channel that same fight-it-out energy to help them use that for behavior change. It is an instinct they already have in them, so we’re attempting to play to their greater strengths.”