Study Attempts to Link Teen Brain Structures and Alcoholism Risks

By Paul Gaita 11/24/14

Researchers employed brain scans to see which factors in a teens' developing brain could lead to alcohol dependency.

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

The experiments, which are part of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Adolescent Development Study, involved 135 pre-teen and teenaged 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, the Continuous Performance Task (CPT), which examines issues of impulsivity, and the Temporal Discounting Task (TD), which looks at preferences for immediate rewards over delayed rewards, were given to the test subjects while they were being scanned in the MRI.

The data was then correlated with a series of four studies to determine the impact of genetic and external factors on the test subjects. In the first study, the parents of 32 participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that asked about their children’s emotional responses to social behavior. That information was then used by the researchers to divide the 32 participants into two groups: those at a low risk for alcohol abuse and those with a higher risk rate.

Then the participants’ MRI scans were examined for brain connectivity within the Executive Control Network (ECN) region of the brain, which includes the areas that process 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.

A second test used the Drug Use Screening Inventory (DUSI), which examines both drug and alcohol use and associated mental and social issues. A group of 17 participants were again divided into low and high risk groups, and then given the CPT test 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.

Two additional studies measured the relationship between diets with high levels of either sugar or the omega-3 fatty acid called DHA and issues of impulsivity. The TD task in the former study confirmed the hypothesis that kids with higher levels of sugar in their diets preferred immediate rewards, while those with lower levels of DHA had greater activity in the region of the brain that monitors attention to tasks.

Though greater research is required to connect all of this data to an accurate prediction of which children are at risk for alcohol dependency, study director John VanMeter, Ph.D, 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.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.