UK scientists have found a link between impulsive behaviors in young people and the decision to drink heavily at an early age.

University of Liverpool researchers believe targeting personality traits, such as impulsivity, could potentially be a successful intervention in preventing adolescent drinking from developing into problems with alcohol in later life.

Studies have shown that in the UK, approximately 24 percent of 12-year-olds have reported at least one episode of alcohol consumption and 77 percent admit exposure by the age of 15 years.

Previous research has suggested that impulsive behavior is linked with adolescent drinking, but it is unclear whether young people who are impulsive tend to drink more, or whether drinking while the brain is still developing harms the brain, leading to the progression of impulsive behaviors.

For the research, the team used computer tests to measure inhibitory control (the ability to delay gratification) and risk-taking.

Researchers followed more than 280 young people who were aged 12 or 13 at the beginning of the study. The computer tests were repeated every six months over the two years of the study.

Results showed that those participants who were more impulsive in the tests went on to drink more heavily or have problems with alcohol at a later time.

The study did not, however, show that alcohol consumption led to increased impulsive behavior on the computer tests. This suggests that there is a link between impulsivity and adolescent drinking, but that alcohol may not necessarily lead to increased impulsive behavior in the short term.

Professor Matt Field, from the University’s Institute of Psychology Health and Society, explains:

“Young people in the UK are starting to drink alcohol at a younger age than in the past, and much of this reflects broad social trends. There are, however, significant differences in the age at which teenagers start to experiment with alcohol and the age at which they start drinking regularly.

“It is important to identify the psychological characteristics of adolescents who are likely to go on to drink heavily, because this can help us target alcohol prevention more effectively. In addition, we need to identify the consequences of heavy drinking during adolescence for health in general, and brain development in particular.

“Our results show that more impulsive individuals are more likely to start drinking heavily in the future compared to less impulsive individuals. The next steps are to take these results and apply them to prevention interventions that are tailored to individual characteristics, such as impulsivity.

“We also need to conduct studies where we follow-up young people for longer than the two years that we did in the present study. This will help us to understand whether heavy drinking over a longer period during adolescence has an impact on impulsive behavior.”

Source: University of Liverpool