July 08, 2014
2 min read

Brain function, personality, life events predict adolescent binge drinking

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Brain function, personality and life events can help predict which adolescents will become binge drinkers, according to recent study findings published in Nature.

“Our goal was to develop a model to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol,” Robert Whelan, PhD, lecturer at the University College Dublin, said in a press release. “This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

Robert Whelan

Robert Whelan

Whelan and colleagues evaluated 700 adolescents aged 14 years identified from the IMAGEN project. They used neuroimaging to assess brain activity and brain structure, and other measures such as IQ, cognitive task performance, personality and blood tests to determine who would become binge drinkers at age 16 years. Result reliability was confirmed using the same measures on a different group of adolescents. Predictors of binge drinking included brain, genetics, personality and personal history factors.

“Notably, it’s not the case that there’s a single one or two or three variables that are critical,” study researcher Hugh Garavan, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, said in the press release. “The final model was very broad — it suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.”

According to the press release the greatest predictors included personality, sensation-seeking traits, lack of conscientiousness, a family history of drug use and having any drinks at age 14 years. Adolescents who experienced several stressful life events were also among those with the greatest risk factors, as were those with bigger brains.

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior, which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models,” study researcher Gunter Schumann, MD, head and professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, said in the release. “This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse. We now propose to extend analysis of the IMAGEN data in order to investigate the development of substance use patterns in the context of moderating environmental factors, such as exposure to nicotine or drugs, as well as psychosocial stress.”

Robert Whelan, PhD, can be reached at Robert.whelan@ucd.ie.

Disclosure: See the full study for a complete list of relevant financial disclosures.