By looking at 40 different factors in a 14 year old teens, including brain structure and function, personality, life experiences and genetics, researchers can predict with 70% accuracy who will go on to develop binge drinking within the next two years. Impulsivity, hopelessness, sensation-seeking traits, lack of conscientiousness, and other variables such as life events and a family history of drug use contribute to the likelihood of binge drinking.
Whether or not the child had had a single drink at age 14 was a particularly powerful predictor, the researchers found. Slightly over 40% of North American 13 and 14 year olds have used alcohol, while 10% of Quebec high school students graduate from high school with substance use problems. The study was driven by the IMAGEN consortium, a European research project on risk taking behaviour in teenagers. Patricia Conrod of the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre designed the original assessment battery and the participant recruitment strategy for the IMAGEN study. She also developed the brief personality scale that was shown to be highly predictive of drinking at 14 and 16 years of age. The first and senior authors of the research article are affiliated with the University of Vermont, University College Dublin, and Trinity College Dublin.
In total, 2,400 European 14 year olds participated in the IMAGEN study. In addition to providing information about their life events, their psychological profile and their substance use, the children underwent an MRI as they played a game (to measure their brains responses to rewards) and were shown angry faces (to measure their emotional reactivity.) The team found that the right middle and precentral gyri and bilateral superior front gyrus areas of the brain were most revealing of the likelihood of future binge drinking. Compared to others, at risk youth had reduced grey matter volume but increased activity in their superior frontal gyrus when receiving a reward. In the premotor cortex, they had more grey matter and greater activity when they failed to inhibit themselves. The MRI results helped validate the factors that the researchers identified as placing a child at risk.
Indeed, the findings do not suggest that binge drinking is hardwired but rather give professionals working with youth ways of finding people in need of help. “The personality dimensions that were shown to be highly predictive of behaviour were assessed using a scale that is currently being used in schools across Montreal to provide targeted prevention to youth at risk of substance misuse,” Conrod said. “Early alcohol use strongly predicts adult alcohol dependence, and every year we can delay alcohol use translates to a 10% decrease in the likelihood of alcoholism later. Outreach efforts that correctly target particularly at risk youth can therefore be of lifelong significance and importance to that person.”
About the study
The article “Neuropsychosocial profiles of current and future adolescent alcohol misusers” was published in Nature on July 2, 2014. The study was funded in part by the European Union-funded FP6 Integrated Project IMAGEN (Reinforcement-related behaviour in normal brain function and psychopathology) (LSHM-CT- 2007-037286), the FP7 projects IMAGEMEND (602450; IMAging GEnetics for MENtal Disorders) and MATRICS (603016), the Innovative Medicine Initiative Project EU-AIMS (115300-2), a Medical Research Council Programme Grant ‘‘Developmental pathways into adolescent substance abuse'' (93558), the Swedish funding agency FORMAS, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London, the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF grants 01GS08152; 01EV0711; eMED SysAlc 01ZX1311A; Forschungsnetz AERIAL), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG): Reinhart-Koselleck Award SP 383/5-1 and grants SM 80/7-1, SFB 940/1, FOR 1617), the French MILDT (Mission Interministérielle de Lutte contre la Drogue et la Toxicomanie), the CENIR (Centre de NeuroImagerie de Recherche, Pr. S. Lehéricy) within the ICM institute, the National Institute of Mental Health (MH082116), a National Institutes of Health Center of Biomedical Research Excellence award P20GM103644 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science award P50DA036114. The University of Montreal is officially known as Université de Montréal.