Heavy Drinking In Teens May Be Predicted By Brain Activity
August 9, 2012

Heavy Drinking In Teens May Be Predicted By Brain Activity

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

According to a study in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, heavy drinking is known to affect the developing brains in teenagers. Certain brain activity patterns also help predict which kids are at risk of becoming problem drinkers.

Researchers used special MRI scans to look at 40 teenagers between the ages of 12 to 16 who had not yet started to drink. They scanned them again after following them for 3 years. During this time half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavy. Kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas had a higher risk of becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years, the investigators found.

Once the teens began drinking, their brain activity looked like the heavy drinkers' in the other studies. As they tried to perform memory tests, their brains showed more activity. Typically included in this pattern of drinking were episodes of having five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks on an occasion for females.

"The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers' developing brains. But they also add a new layer: there may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking."

"That's the opposite of what you'd expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older," said lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.

"It's interesting because it suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability," Squeglia said.

That doesn't mean teenagers are going to start having MRI scans of their brains to see which ones may start drinking. But the findings do give clues into the biological beginnings of kids' problem drinking.

The message here is that heavy drinking could affect young people's brains at the time when they need to be working sufficiently.

"You're learning to drive, you're getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development," Squeglia said. She noted that all of the study contributors were healthy, well-functioning kids. It's possible that teens with certain disorders -- like depression or ADHD -- might show bigger effects from intense drinking.