Scientists say they may someday be able to predict which adolescents will become alcoholics from certain patterns of activity in their brains. Researchers are focusing on areas of the brain associated with short-term memory, as well as the ability to plan and organize tasks.
Experts say adolescents' brains keep developing until their mid-twenties. And the authors of a new study say differences in activity in certain regions of the brain may predict whether adolescents become problem drinkers as adults. Problem drinking, or heavy alcohol use, is defined as consuming four or more drinks in a single sitting.
Scientists at the University of California San Diego used a brain-imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, with a group of adolescents between the ages of 12 to 16 years old who had not yet started drinking. The fMRI technique allows researchers to view which areas of the brain are active as the participants perform certain tasks.
Three years later, the researchers repeated the scans. During that period, about half of the pre-teen and teenage participants started drinking heavily.
Study leader Lindsay Squeglia says researchers were surprised to see that even in the first brain scans, the pre-drinkers had a different pattern of brain activity compared to the others. Kids who ended up drinking heavily displayed less brain activity beforehand, which seems to be a risk factor for alcohol use.
“Once they start drinking, there is an increase in activation to perform at the same level. So they are needing more brain energy to perform at the same level as kids who aren’t drinking. But over time, with continued drinking, there is again a decrease in activation which is related to worse performance. So they are no longer able to perform at the same level also," she said.
Squeglia says the areas of the brain that seem most affected in future drinkers are those that control executive functioning, such as short-term memory, and the ability to plan and organize tasks.
While it is not practical to scan the brains of all kids who might eventually become heavy drinkers, Squeglia says working with teens to bolster their organizational and memory skills might lower their risk.
“Because there are these existing differences before the kids even start drinking. And also just psycho-education, talking to adolescents about the effect of alcohol use on the brain. This is a really import neurodevelopmental period," she said.
An article by Lindsay Squeglia and colleagues at the University of California will be published in the September issue of Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.