Common Factors for Teens at Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Neuroscientists are homing in on key brain factors and behaviors that put teens at risk for alcohol abuse even before they start drinking, according to new research at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

So far, they have found that teens at risk for future alcohol abuse tend to have reduced connections in vital brain regions, greater impulsivity, higher sugar consumption, and lower levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary building block of the human brain.

The Adolescent Development Study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, was presented recently at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Georgetown researchers conducted four studies, which resulted in four abstracts, each showing a connection between an early sign or symptom and future alcohol abuse.

“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,” said John VanMeter, director of the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging, and associate professor of neurology at GUMC.

“If we know what is different, we may be able to develop strategies that can prevent the behavior.”

For the research, neuroscientists evaluated 135 preteen and teenage boys and girls, all of whom underwent structural and functional MRI to investigate the connection between brain development and behavior.

One of the abstracts suggests that reduced prefrontal cortex development occurs before alcohol use and may be related to future alcohol use disorders.

Another showed that a weaker connection between executive control in the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex (involved in processing emotions and responsive to drug cues in addicts) is connected to stronger feelings of impulsivity, which in turn are associated with alcohol problems.

Another abstract showed that teens who consume high amounts of added sugar tend to seek immediate rewards compared to their peers with lower sugar levels in their diets. Those with higher sugar intake also displayed greater activation in brain regions connected to impulsivity and emotional affect.

Finally, preliminary findings of a fourth study showed that those with low levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) were also prone to impulsivity, but had greater activation in brain regions responsible for paying attention and executive function compared to those with high DHA. This suggests a compensatory response in those with low DHA.

The Adolescent Development Study, jointly run by GUMC and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), is a large-scale study developed to understand how a teen brain that is “still under construction” can lead to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.

Source: Georgetown University