MRI Scans of Teen Brains Can Identify Addiction Risk, Researchers Say

By Britni de la Cretaz 02/08/17

Brain scans revealed an overlap between teens with family history of addiction and those who begin using substances as adolescents.

Patient being scanned on an MRI scanner.

New research has shown that MRI scans may help identify risk for substance abuse in adolescent brains. The study comes out of Oregon State University.

The hope is that these findings could lead to intervention, whether behavioral or neuropsychological, and prevent teens from developing problems with substances down the road.

According to a statement released on OSU’s website, Anita Cservenka, an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University and co-author of the study said, “Structural and neural alterations in the brain from drug and alcohol abuse have now been well established.”

She continued, “It’s also becoming clear that some of these alterations can exist before any substance abuse, and often are found in youth who have a family history of alcohol and drug use disorders. These familial risk factors can play a role in future substance abuse, along with environmental risk factors such as peer influence, personality and psychosocial interactions.”

Past studies have also identified risk factors for adolescents. Preventure, an anti-drug program, looked at how personality traits could put teens at risk for substance abuse. Their study found four traits that resulted in high risk for addiction: sensation-seeking, impulsivity, anxiety sensitivity and negative thinking.

Another recent study showed that heavy drinking in adolescence resulted in significant changes to brain function. Researchers identified greater electrical activity in the cortex and greater activity of the GABA neurotransmission system in heavy drinkers—which may cause anxiety, depression and numerous neurological disorders.

According to Cservenka, there is a significant overlap in brain scans between teens with a family history of drug and alcohol abuse, and youth who begin using substances during adolescence. Adolescents who started drinking before the age of 15 displayed "four to six times the rate of lifetime alcohol dependence than those who do not drink by age 21."

Other findings related to adolescents with a family history of addiction include “a smaller volume of limbic brain regions, sex-specific patterns of hippocampal volume, and a positive association of familial risk with ‘nucleus accumbens’ volume in the brain.”

Researchers also identified risk factors for adolescent substance use including “poorer performance on executive functioning tasks of inhibition and working memory, smaller brain volumes in reward and cognitive control regions, and heightened response to rewards,” according to the OSU statement.

“We’re just beginning to understand the risk factors for substance abuse and the consequences of adolescent substance use with these types of large, long-term studies,” Cservenka said. “Ultimately such information should help inform us about who might be at most risk and what brain areas are most vulnerable, so we can target them and work to prevent the problems.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.