Brain Patterns Could Predict Teens at Risk for Later Alcohol Abuse

Brain Patterns Could Predict Teens at Risk for Later Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is a general term used to describe a negative drinking pattern. Abuse can come in the form of drinking large amounts of alcohol or as habitual drinking, but in either case, the person who abuses alcohol continues to drink regardless of its negative results. Alcohol abuse, while not the same thing as alcoholism, is often the precursor to the alcohol-dependent condition. New research suggests that not only can alcohol’s ill effects be tracked by brain activity, but may actually be predicted.

A research team within the University of California, San Diego has used magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) to detect predictive signs of future alcohol abuse. The researchers tracked 40 subjects ranging in age from 12 to 16 years old who had never engaged in drinking alcohol. The team took baseline MRI scans on all 40 subjects and then conducted follow-up MRIs three years later. During the intervening years, approximately 20 of the teens (50 percent of the study group) engaged in excessive drinking. Excessive drinking was defined as five or more drinks in a single sitting for boys and four or more drinks in a row for girls.

The researchers found that the same teens who had initially shown less activity is specific brain areas were the same ones who ended up drinking most heavily. Low activity in the parietal lobe which is responsible for dealing with spatial relationships and the frontal lobe where organization, planning and short-range memory takes place were noted in those teens who eventually became heavy drinkers.

The follow-up MRIs indicated that those whose brains were initially less active in these regions proved to be most at risk for heavy drinking later on. The longer teens engaged in heavy drinking the less proficient they became in performing memory-based tasks. This degrading of brain function is important because these would normally be years when the brain’s memory and overall performance waxes ever stronger rather than the reverse.

The study therefore underlines what is already known about teen use of alcohol, specifically those intense drinking episodes during the teen years can alter the ways in which the brain behaves and performs. The study also suggests something new, and that is that certain neural patterns may be predictive of future abuse. The UCSD study may help define the long-suspected presence of biological risk factors for substance abuse.

Teens who are missing school, passing out, or are showing significant changes in personality may be abusing alcohol. As abuse worsens the teen may binge more often because their tolerance for alcohol is increasing. As alcohol abuse crosses over into alcoholism, the person may feel that he/she needs alcohol in order to function socially and my experience physical reactions to the absence of alcohol.

The full teen study report is available online in the September edition of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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