Young brains at risk: Co-constituting youth and addiction in neuroscience-informed Australian drug education

Abstract

This article explores the developing relationship between neuroscientific understandings of ‘addiction’ and ‘youth’. Drawing on science and technology studies theory and social scientific analyses of both these concepts, it identifies a co-constitutive relationship between notions of addiction as a brain disease and of youth as a stage of brain development. These two concepts are then tracked in a series of drug education documents concerned with alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and addiction among young people, and their implications and effects and analysed together. The aim is to investigate the impact on drug education of neuroscientific approaches to youth and addiction. Are new concepts and directions for harm reduction created in the encounters between neuroscience, youth and addiction, or do they simply reinstate and reinforce existing assumptions and judgments? Is drug education shaped by these concepts likely to achieve its aim, that is, to increase young people’s sensitivity to harm and safety? The article begins by introducing neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction, arguing that the two concepts share three key assumptions. First, both emphasise biology and sideline social context in the making of drug use practices and outcomes. Second, both reproduce uncritical treatments of brain scans (PET and fMRI images) as windows into minds and subjects. Third, both understand the brain as ontologically separate from its environment. These assumptions and their implications are then tracked through an analysis of Australian drug education resources, focusing on how drug education constitutes youthfulness and addiction as pathological disorders. In its reliance on neuroscientific understandings of youth and addiction, we conclude, drug education is unlikely to achieve its goal of reducing drug-related harm.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Google searches were performed using Google’s standard search field, and the search terms: ‘drug education’, ‘drug education resources’, ‘drug education resources for teachers’, ‘secondary drug education’, ‘drug information’, ‘drug info’, ‘harm reduction drug education’, ‘harm reduction resources’, ‘harm minimisation education’ and ‘harm minimisation resources’. After the search results were displayed, teaching resources produced by Australian state and federal government departments, such as the Commonwealth Department of Education, and Training (DET) (formally Commonwealth Department of Education, Science, and Training), were selected for analysis. Some resources were also collected by searching government-funded research centres such as the National Drug Research Institute (Curtin University) and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (University of New South Wales). This description of the project method first appeared Farrugia (2017).

  2. 2.

    Available http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/attachments/085_DIF_teendrinking_complete_4.pdf (Accessed 13/09/16).

  3. 3.

    Available http://www.drugs.health.gov.au/internet/drugs/publishing.nsf/content/campaign/$file/bkFact.pdf (Accessed 12/09/16).

  4. 4.

    Accessed online at https://ncpic.org.au/professionals/ (25/06/2015).

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Acknowledgements

The National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University is supported by funding from the Australian Government under the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvement Grants Fund. Suzanne Fraser’s research is supported by Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT120100215). The authors state that this manuscript comprises original material that is not under review elsewhere, and that the study on which the research is based has been subject to appropriate ethical review.

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Farrugia, A., Fraser, S. Young brains at risk: Co-constituting youth and addiction in neuroscience-informed Australian drug education. BioSocieties 12, 588–610 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0047-2

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Keywords

  • addiction
  • youth
  • drug education
  • neuroscience
  • Bruno Latour
  • Annemarie Mol and John Law