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Can Teen MRIs Predict Risky Drinking?

A study of teen brains shows a less active "working memory" may predict heavy drinking later on.

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By Chrisanne Grise

08/08/12

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Brain scans of teenagers could help predict problem drinking later in life, according to a new study. Using MRI scans, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, examined the brains of 40 teens before they started drinking, and then again three years later—when about half of the participants had started drinking alcohol. The subjects who displayed less activity in the areas of the brain used for higher-order decision-making (called "working memory") were more likely to become heavy drinkers over the next three years. "It suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability," says lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, adding that teens with a less active working memory might have more trouble weighing risks—which could lend itself to a proclivity towards substance abuse. The study also revealed the impact of drinking on the teens' brain development. After three years, the brains of participants who had begun drinking heavily (four or more drinks for females and five or more for males) had to work harder harder than before to complete the same tasks. "That's the opposite of what you'd expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older," says Squeglia, suggesting that heavy drinking may negatively impact developing brains during an especially crucial time in a person's life. "You're learning to drive, you're getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development," Squeglia says.

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