In a new international study, researchers say it is possible to predict which teens will binge-drink. The findings, published in the journal Nature, show that factors such as life experience, personality, and brain structure are strong factors linked to future alcohol misuse.
For the study, data was pulled from the European IMAGEN cohort, whose purpose is to determine the biological and environmental factors that might have an influence on the mental health of teenagers.
The researchers then developed a model that incorporates 40 different risk factors of teen substance abuse, including personality, history/life events, brain physiology and structure, cognitive ability, genetics, and demographics.
“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models,” said Professor Gunter Schumann from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and Coordinator of the IMAGEN project.
For the study, IMAGEN recruited over 2,000 teenagers who were 14 years old from England, Ireland, France, and Germany. Follow-ups at age 16 showed that it was indeed possible to predict future alcohol abuse just two years later.
One interesting finding was that even one-to-two instances of alcohol consumption by age 14 was enough to predict if the teenagers would binge-drink at age 16. Prior research has suggested that the odds of adult alcohol dependence can be reduced by 10 percent for each year that alcohol consumption is delayed in the teen years.
Previous studies have found that early teenage binge drinking and progression to alcohol misuse is genetically influenced and is also consistently linked to later risk for substance use disorders.
It is important to determine, however, whether environmental factors can tip the genetic risk. In this study, negative life experiences were found to be a major influence on binge drinking at age 14.
“Our goal was to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences, and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol. This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function, and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years,” said lead author Dr. Robert Whelan, of University College Dublin.
The scientists would like to continue this work by evaluating the participants again at a later age. The factors used in this study will also be applied to predict other types of risk-taking behaviors, such as using drugs and smoking.
New simplified versions of the tests are being developed so that children who are at risk of alcohol misuse can be identified and given help.
Source: King’s College London