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Predicting Teen Binge Drinking: a Test

Jul 03, 2014 05:41 PM EDT

Researchers claim they have created a test that can predict the likelihood that a teen will binge drink at the age of 16 by measuring life events, personality, and even brain structure.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, past work has established that a tendency to binge drink may in-part be genetic, especially in families with a history of alcohol abuse. However, the team argues that it is just as likely that this genetic vulnerability simply cultivates an environment that truly drives the likelihood of binge drinking.

It is important, they explain, to determine if environmental factors can heavily modify genetic predisposition to this unhealthy habit.

To determine this, the researchers analyzed data from a long-term European study called IMAGEN, which has recruited more than 2,000 teenagers at the age of 14.

According to the study, these participants had their brains analyzed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) each year since first entering the program - mapping brain structure and physiology. Surveys and interviews also provided data on personality, life history, cognitive abilities, and genetic background.

The researchers quickly found that participants who involved themselves in binge drinking by the age of 16 more often had reduced grey matter, compared to non-binging participants. They also had greater activity in the frontal gyrus on average, indicating an increased response to receiving gratification.

 "There's refining and sculpting of the brain, and most of the gray matter - the neurons and the connections between them, are getting smaller and the white matter is getting larger," senior author Hugh Garavan explained in a statement. "Kids with more immature brains - those that are still larger - are more likely to drink."

Ironically, "mature" life events, such a romantic and sexual relationships and negative experience at the age of 14 also led to a higher likelihood of binge drinking. Even rare instances of alcohol consumption at 14 led to the same result.

"We aimed to develop a 'gold standard' model for predicting teenage behavior that can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models. This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse," said co-author Gunter Schumann.

They now hope to use this same data to build models to predict the likelihood of other substance abuse.

The study was published in Nature on July 2.

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