November 19, 2010

Can You Inherit Alcoholism?

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Scientists say teens with a family history of alcohol abuse show decreased brain function. These findings could present an inimitable neurobiological susceptibility for adolescents at risk of developing alcohol abuse.

Marisa Silveri, one of the authors of the study and assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging Center within McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, said that the researchers examined adolescents that had not begun to drink, but nonetheless possessed a positive family history of alcoholism.

"Altered brain function in teens who are already drinking or abusing alcohol could either be a direct result of alcohol use or could be due to a pre-existing brain difference that leads to drinking," Silveri was quoted as saying.  "Therefore, this study sought to examine whether functional brain differences could be observed before alcohol use begins in a group of adolescents at greater risk for using alcohol, by having alcoholic parents or grandparents, compared to adolescents without alcoholism in their family."

Utilizing the Stroop Interference test (SIT), subjects were required to prevent themselves from automatically reading a color word aloud, and rather focus instead on a less automatic response of stating the color of the ink the work was written in (i.e. not reading the word green when it is written in blue ink).

Thirty-two adolescent volunteers participated in the experiment, with 18 being indicated as family history positive (FH+), and the subsequent 14 assigned to the family history negative (FH-) or control group.  Using an MRI scanner, scientists were able to collect fMRI BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) data as an indicator of activation levels contained by the brain during response-inhibition tasks (like the ones referenced above via Stroop).

"The ability to sustain adequate performance by recruiting additional brain resources suggests that their brains may have a subtle vulnerability that requires additional effort for a challenging task," which Susan F. Tapert, a professor at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and University of California San Diego Department of Psychiatry, was quoted as saying.

"These results may suggest that individuals in their formative years with familial alcoholism have a less mature frontal system, and may be somewhat less equipped to control real-life situations that require inhibition of impulsive responses, such as, potentially, to use alcohol or other drugs."

Silveri believes that, in addition to more research on identifying those who have the possibility of alcoholism later in life, there is a far more essential focus: the development and continuance of school programs and curricula based on neuroscientific findings, which could aid adolescents in understanding why a family history of alcoholism could put them at considerably larger risk.

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, February 2011