Teenage Brain Scans May Predict Alcohol Abuse

Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs
Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever heard a parent say to their teenager, “What were you thinking?” Let’s face it, raising teenagers can be challenging and often our teenage children do something that just makes no sense to us as parents. Would it surprise you to know that a person’s brain continues to develop well into their mid-20s? It’s true, and this is why the teenage brain is still so fragile and susceptible to injury and trauma.

This past Wednesday, August 8, 2012, a new study was published online in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, with lead researcher Dr. Lindsay Squeglia. The subject? Adolescent brain activity while performing visual memory tasks.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers followed two groups, ages 12-16. Each group member had an fMRI at the beginning of the three year study and again at the end of the three year period. The researchers then compared the brain scans of 20 teens who became “heavy drinkers” during the three year period and 20 teen who remained non-drinkers during the three year period. In other respects, the teens had similar backgrounds, including familial history of alcoholism.

According to the Union Tribune article, the study had two critical findings:

  1. Teens who became heavy drinkers later on, showed less brain activity while doing the memory task during the initial fMRI.
  2. When this group was given a second fMRI three years later, the heavy drinkers showed more brain activity in the parietal and frontal lobes than the non-drinking control group.

As Dr. Squeglia explains it:  “Their brains should become more efficient as they get older so what we would expect over time is less brain activation” in the later fMRI. “That’s what we saw with the control group. We saw just the opposite with the heavy drinkers.”  Additionally, these differences in brain activity were obvious between the two groups when the original fMRIs were reviewed, which could mean there is the potential for predicting a risk factor for alcohol abuse. 

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