by Barrett Seaman
Michael Nerney is a bearded bantam, full of energy and jovial in nature, but his message delivered on March 14 to Irvington High School athletes—and later to some parents—was deadly serious in its content. A former teacher and coach, and a father of three himself, Nerney now gives presentations not only on the effects of alcohol and drugs on teenage brains but also on the unique plasticity and volatility of a brain as it develops between the ages of 12 and 23.
On that Monday afternoon, 200 of Irvington High’s athletes filed into the school theater to hear his rapid-fire admixture of mind-boggling statistics and facts about how a teenage brain develops and why it is particularly vulnerable to outside influences, coupled with amusing anecdotes about other teenagers, including his own. Nerney’s presentation is not a finger-wagging lecture but a steady volley of facts that students can take or leave.
The events were sponsored by IASK—Irvington’s About Safe Kids campaign.
His approach with about three-dozen parents that evening was much the same, though tailored to explain the frustrating anomalies of teenage-dom, delivered to those who live with it every day. Illustrating his points with slides depicting living brains as they are influenced by various stimuli, Nerney offered his audiences a host of material with which they could make decisions. Among his claims:
- The adolescent brain has 200 billion cells—nearly twice the number older adults have, but kids have twice as much gray matter as white, while adults have a balance of gray and white matter.
- Teens are prone to take risks. For boys, the risks tend to be physical; for girls, they are more likely to be emotional or sexual.
- Hormones—testosterone and estrogen—play an enormous role in influencing the brain, particularly the amygdala, which performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.
- Ongoing studies at the University of Pennsylvania are showing how males use their brains differently than females use theirs. And their brains react differently to stimuli. The female brain, for instance, reacts differently to smoking, by triggering more dopamine, which leads to weight loss—something viewed as desirable to most teenage girls.
While these differences apply not just to the current generation but universally over time and place, Nerney stressed that their impact is dramatically greater in a modern environment in which social media plays such a huge role in young people’s daily lives.
Today’s world is full of risks that didn’t exist a couple of generations ago: cyber-bullying; access to anti-depressants and a range of sophisticated medications in parents’ cabinets; the ubiquity of hand sanitizer that is 68% alcohol; Aeroshots that are 100 mgs. of inhalable caffeine; disposable nicotine strips that can be dropped into a beer for an extra hit; Snobars—innocent-looking summer ices that are 14% alcohol; cupcakes with frosting that is 15% alcohol—all products targeting kids. More than ever, there is a propensity to mix and match drugs and alcohol.
The small group of parents (some with their teenage children) came away with practical advice on how best to set ground rules and how to establish code language to allow a teenage child to call home with a disguised signal to come and extricate them from a risky situation.
The student athletes also took away practical lessons. Mallory Toolan, a senior varsity lacrosse and soccer player, admitted that much of what Nerney said was new to her. “I was really interested when he explained how a female’s body reacts to alcohol compared to a male’s. I always thought that everyone’s body recovers the same way, but I now know that it takes females longer to recover because alcohol has a greater effect on them.”
Cristian Isho, a sophomore who is also a starting midfielder on the boy’s lacrosse team, was struck by the lasting effects drinking has on one’s performance. “Drinking could slow you down by a 10th of a second,” he recalled, which could make the difference between winning and losing. “A good number of my peers felt the same thing. You have to ask yourself: is one drink really worth it?”
Michael Nerney gives similar talks around the region, operating out of Long Lake, NY, north of Albany. He can be reached at 518-624-5351.