Researchers from the University of Vermont have just conducted the longest longitudinal study on adolescent brain imaging to date, and they believe they can predict who will be drinking by age 16. The findings were published in an advanced online version of the journal Nature.
Researchers believe that a series of factors, from genetics to the brain’s mechanics, can help researchers predict whether a teenager will be susceptible to binge drinking.
Binge drinking in the US
According to HelpGuide.org, more than half of adolescents and teens aged 12 to 20 have tried alcohol at least once.
The study included 2,400 teenagers who were 14 years old at eight different sites throughout Europe.
Author Robert Whelan, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow of psychiatry at the university, and other UVM colleagues spent 10 hours performing in-depth assessments like neuroimaging that allowed them to see participants’ brain activity as well as its structure. The researchers also conducted tests on blood, IQ, personality and cognitive abilities.
The researchers explained the point of the study was to examine the role of alcohol abuse on the brain’s various functions and its structure in adolescents. They believe that different variables, from environment, to genetics, to brain function, can help determine who will be binge drinking by 16 years old.
The same researchers conducted a similar study in 2012, published in Nature Neuroscience, which highlighted brain networks that showed some teens were more prone to high-risk behavior that could lead to using drugs and alcohol.
Their newest work was formed on top of that older study, tracking the initial participants to discover who developed a drinking problem. Those participants are currently 19 years old. For this study, the researchers tried to predict who would go on to binge drink at 16 by only using data collected from the participants at age 14.
The Predictors of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
The accuracy of their results was confirmed by the separate group of teenagers in comparison to the first group. The study proved that there was not one single factor that could determine alcohol abuse, but rather a grouping. Some of the variables included a person’s personality, his or her desire for sensation, that person’s lack of conscientiousness and a genetic history of abuse. They found that those who tried alcohol at age 14 were at a higher risk, because it showed a certain type of cognition in a person, as well as those with very stressful lives. They also found predictability in those who have larger brains. At 14, a large brain is a sign of immaturity, as the brain actually becomes smaller during this period.
The researchers hope to take their findings further, determining if different substances like drugs have distinct predictors.