Teen Brain Activity May Signal Future Alcohol Problems

Research Update

Research Date

Brain activity patterns may provide clues about a young person’s risk for initiating harmful alcohol use, according to new research supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

NIAAA-funded scientists led by Susan Tapert, Ph.D., and Lindsay Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, and VA San Diego Healthcare, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure brain activity patterns among 12- to 16-year-old non-drinkers who performed a memory task while being scanned.  The researchers repeated the MRI scans three years later, after some of the study subjects had begun to drink heavily.

As reported online in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs on August 8, the researchers found that the initial MRI scans of teens who became heavy drinkers had shown less activity in brain regions involved in performing the memory task.  They suggest that the decreased brain activity indicates a possible pre-existing vulnerability to harmful drinking—a signal that  youth with less activity were more likely to become heavy drinkers.

Three years later, the heavy-drinking teens showed more activity in the same brain regions compared to teens who remained nondrinkers, an indication that the brains of the heavy drinking teens were processing information less efficiently than the nondrinkers’ brains.  Researchers explained that, as brains get older, and more efficient, they normally require less effort to accomplish a task, the opposite of what was seen in the heavy drinkers.

“These preliminary findings suggest that we may be able to find neural markers that signal a teen’s risk for heavy drinking even before they start drinking,” notes Ellen Witt, Ph.D., deputy director of the NIAAA division of neuroscience and behavior.  “This study points to the need for larger, long-term studies to differentiate the effects of pre-existing neural factors from alcohol’s specific effects on cognition and brain function during adolescence.”

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