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Can Science Tell if a Teen will be Alcoholic?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Justin Mckibben

Young adults, college kids or not, make up a large portion of the alcohol consuming population. Many of them have not been drinking for too long, and all of them are still developing mentally. So if we have what some call an opportunity to try and catch that mind in the pre-teen pre-alcoholic stages before it gets too far and curb the behavior, should we trust science to make that call?

It is a pretty safe assumption that to test individuals from an adolescent age group would be using an effective demographic to see if there could be identifiable traits that contribute to more excessive drinking habits later on in life, so how do they actually intend to test them?

Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have announced they are conducting a sequence of studies to determine if factors involved in the developing brains of teenagers may indicate whether or not they will be at risk for a future of alcohol dependency or alcoholism.

Specifics of Variables

As part of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Adolescent Development Study, the experiments to measure this kind of development are set to involve 135 pre-teen and teenage boys and girls with an average age of 12.6 years. All participants were given structural and functional MRIs, as well as questionnaires and several neurocognitive function tests.

Two of the tests were given to the test subjects while they were being scanned in the MRI.

  1. Continuous Performance Task (CPT), which examines issues of impulsivity
  2. Temporal Discounting Task (TD), which looks at preferences for immediate rewards over delayed rewards

The data was then correlated with a series of 4 studies to determine the impact of genetic and external factors on the test subjects.

Test Portion 1

In the first study, the parents became the primary source of data, as each guardian of the 32 participants was asked to fill out an inquiry form that asked about their children’s emotional responses to social behavior. The information gathered by this questionnaire was then used by the researchers to divide the 32 participants into two groups:

  • Low risk for alcohol abuse
  • Higher risk rate for alcohol abuse

Then the participants’ MRI scans were examined for brain connectivity within the Executive Control Network (ECN) region of the brain.

The ECN is the part of the brain including areas for processing emotion and self-control. The researchers concluded that those participants in the higher risk group showed significantly lower ECN connectivity than those in the low risk group.

So essentially, this first portion suggests that those who are grouped into the higher risk category seem to have less of a grasp on processing emotional responses and self-control, which continued study aims to link to excessive drinking later on.

Test Portion 2

The Drug Use Screening Inventory (DUSI), which examines both drug and alcohol use and associated mental and social issues, was used for the second part of the testing.

17 of the 32 participants were divided into low and high risk groups, and then given the CPT for issues with impulsivity during an MRI to determine connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex, which helps to process emotions.

Once more, researchers found that the high risk group showed lower connectivity between the cortexes than the low risk group. So again, those who were determined to fit the description of the high-risk group are proving to have an increased difficultly in connecting to their emotional responses as well as the lower risk group.

Additional Testing

Two additional studies measured the relationship between the subjects’ diets, relating high levels of either sugar or the omega-3 fatty acid (DHA) and issues of impulsivity. The TD charge, focused on immediate and delayed rewards, in the former study confirmed 2 elements of another hypothesis:

  • kids with higher levels of sugar in their diets preferred immediate rewards
  • kids with lower levels of the fatty acid DHA had greater activity in the region of the brain that monitors attention to tasks

As with any study in its early stages, there must be more research to properly connect all of this data to an accurate calculation of which children are at risk for alcohol dependency.

John VanMeter Ph.D, the director of the study said,

“What this study is attempting to do is identify the differences in the brains of adolescents who go on to misuse alcohol and other drugs. If we know what is different, we may be able to develop strategies that can prevent that behavior.”

With this kind of research, many are hopeful that they can determine the kind of social and emotional behavioral issues that are frequently present in cases of individuals who struggle with excessive alcohol use or even alcohol addiction by identifying a genetic brain functions.

The idea comes down to a doctor being able to examine a pre-teen or teenager experiencing some social or emotional issues, and have a method to tell by their brain activity what kind of risk they face for a future of alcoholism or drug addiction, to the extent that they have it down to a science.

Is it even possible to predict alcoholism at that level? Or is alcoholic addiction something beyond science itself? While many insist that there is an obvious predisposition to alcoholism and addiction, there can be hope that this idea will help teens who run the risks. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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