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Island Students get frightening lesson in addictions: Expert warns of susceptibility to COVID-19

Drugs … alcohol … vaping … smoking … caffeine … overeating … computer games … cell phones. All can be addictive and all can affect brain development and function.

That was the message on Dec. 18 from Stephen Dewey, Ph. D.,  an addiction specialist who spoke to Shelter Island students in grades seven through 12 in a virtual presentation.

Mr. Dewey and his colleagues at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, a branch of North Shore-LIJ Health System, have approached addictions by studying the way substances and activities affect brain function.

Using brain imaging on volunteers, the research has led to development of treatments for drug abuse. But taking it a step further, the team has been able to uncover addictive behaviors that can permanently affect the brain development and its effect on decision-making skills.

Mr. Dewey’s message to students was that addictive tendencies can be present at birth, but behavior can determine whether a student becomes an addict, leading to lifelong problems, or is free from addiction with a bright future.

Addictive substances and habits affect dopamine levels in the brain, Mr. Dewey said. Dopamine released by the brain affects many functions, but with respect to addictions, it plays a major role in moods — happiness and pleasure to depression and resulting negative behaviors. It affects memory, sleep patterns and learning abilities.

COVID and dependency

Critical today is that addiction can result in greater likelihood that a student will develop COVID-19 — and generally not a mild case. Put a student without addictions in a room with a COVID-19 patient and the student may not contract the disease. But a student with an addiction is likely to become ill, he said.

Vaping affects membranes in the nose and oils in the lungs, making a person more susceptible to becoming infected with COVID-19 and even more likely to die. Those who die are victims of Lipoid pneumonia with some 40,000 who vape dying and 50,000 more who don’t vape but are exposed to vaping second hand.

Smoking ruin

“Vaping is really ill advised” since it causes diseases of lungs and kidneys, Mr. Dewey said.

Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and many other drugs are addictive, but what the experts have learned about marijuana use offers another line of concern. Smoking weed reduces mitosis — the process of cell division that’s essential to brain development in youths. It stops the process of brain growth in frontal lobes. A single instance of smoking will stop mitosis for 14 days. Ongoing smoking of the substance can permanently affect brain development.

But street-purchased weed has long been laced with other substances. In past times, it was often cocaine and the intent was to expose the smoker to the more powerful addictive drug. Today, marijuana is often laced with methamphetamine.

Mr. Dewey spoke of a 12-year-old who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease resulting from such exposure who is now unable to move.

Blind drunk

Alcohol is not only addictive, but the way in which many youths are using it is increasing incidences of blindness. The youths aren’t drinking alcohol. Instead, they’re pouring it into the eyes. They get drunk, but if they submitted to a breathalyzer test used by police, they would not test as though they’re inebriated, so wouldn’t be subject to punishment for driving under the influence.

But they don’t realize that doing so a single time can result in starting to lose eyesight within six to nine months and eventually a complete loss of eyesight.

The number one addiction in the world today? Foods that result in obesity, Mr. Dewey said.

Hooked online

The internet is addictive, Mr. Dewey said, noting two games popular with many students — Minecraft and Fortnite — are actually designed to be addictive. Playing them can result in a chemical addiction visible in the brain through a PET scan, Mr. Dewey said.

Both games are designed to play on cell phones, another source of addiction.

Two hours of playing either of those games a day can cause problems, but many students have reported playing 10 to 12 hours a day.

Where do they get the time? Playing late at night and overnight and staying awake with the aid of caffeine. A can of Monster that contains three to four times the caffeine of a single cup of coffee is consumed by many of the students playing games and they’re often drinking two to three cans per day.

Caffeine is major drug of abuse in the world today, Mr. Dewey said.

The result is to “jack up the human brain,” he said. And mixing caffeine and alcohol will increase the likelihood of becoming addicted more quickly, Mr. Dewey said.

No one disputes that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, but people don’t always realize they can become addicted even if they aren’t smokers, but are exposed to second hand smoke that reduces dopamine in the brain.

The only good news is that the dopamine levels can return to normal levels 55 days after an individual stops smoking or being exposed to second-hand smoke.