We can predict which 14-year-olds will be binge-drinkers by 16, brain researchers say

By Scott Kaufman
Monday, July 7, 2014 14:55 EDT
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Students with "Siouxper Drunk" T-shirts in North Dakota
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Science Daily reported that researchers have discovered a means of predicting whether an individual will become a binge drinker by 16 years of age by imaging their 14-year-old brains.

Robert Whelan and Hugh Garavan wanted “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.” They determined that their “multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

The pair began their longitudinal study of the brains of 14-year-olds in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience in 2012, and they used the data collected there to predict which of the participants would be binge-drinkers by the age of 16.

According to the study accepted as an advance online publication by Nature, they were able to do so with 70 percent accuracy.

Garavan warned, however, that they were not able to isolate a single cause. “The final model was very broad,” he said, “it suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.”

Those variables include personality, lack of conscientiousness, and a family predisposition to drug and alcohol abuse. However, he also noted that there was one trait that the majority of eventual binge-drinkers shared — a large brain.

Adolescent brains normally reduce their size to become more efficient, so 14-year-olds with larger, more immature brain were more likely to become binge drinkers by 16 years of age.

“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,” Garavan said. “Kids with more immature brains — those that are still larger — are more likely to drink.”

Gunter Schumann of King’s College London, who was the principle investigator of this study, said that “[w]e 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. 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.”

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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