Researchers Find Common Factors in Teens at Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Posted in GUMC Stories

NOVEMBER 26, 2014 – Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (new window) (GUMC) are zeroing in on brain factors and behaviors that put teens at risk of alcohol use and abuse even before they start drinking.

Four abstracts resulting from the Adolescent Development Study, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (new window), were presented last week Sunday at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Adolescent Development Study, jointly run by GUMC and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), is a wide-ranging effort to understand how a teen brain that is “still under construction,” as the NIH puts it, can lead to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.

Identifying Differences

John VanMeter, PhD (new window), director of the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging, and associate professor of neurology at GUMC, and Diana Fishbein, PhD, director of the Center for Translational Research on Adversity, Neurodevelopment and Substance Abuse (C-TRANS) at UMSOM, run the project.

“What this study is attempting to do is identify the differences in the brains of adolescents who go on to misuse alcohol and other drugs,” VanMeter says. “If we know what is different, we may be able to develop strategies that can prevent the behavior.”

The studies included a participant pool of 135 preteen and teenage boys and girls, all of whom underwent structural and functional MRI to investigate the connection between brain development and behavior.

Observing Connections

The abstracts provide new evidence that adolescents at higher risk of alcoholism have reduced connections in key brain networks.

One of the studies suggests that reduced prefrontal cortex development predates alcohol use and may be related to future alcohol use disorders.

Another abstract shows that a weaker connection between executive control in the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex (involved in processing emotions and responsive to drug cues in addicts) is associated with higher levels of impulsivity, which in turn is associated with alcohol disorders.

Sugar and DHA

One abstract showed that youth who intake high amounts of added sugar seek immediate rewards more than those with lower levels in their diets.

Those with increased sugar intake also show greater activation in brain areas linked to impulsivity and emotional affect.

And preliminary findings of a study looking at dietary intake of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, showed that those with low DHA appear to equivalent impulsivity, but greater activation in brain regions involved in paying attention and executive function than those with high DHA. This suggests a compensatory response in those with low DHA.

For more information on the studies, click here (new window).