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Adolescents at Risk for Alcohol Problems Exhibit Different Brain Functions
Posted on February 24, 2011
Adolescence is a time of increased brain activity. The prefrontal cortex is developing new, more advanced functioning relating to decision making, social understanding and the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. However, adolescence is also a time when many young people initiate alcohol use, which can alter the development taking place in the brain.
An adolescent whose family has a history of alcohol abuse is at a significantly higher risk of developing an alcohol dependence problem. A recent study looked at the brain function differences between adolescents with a family history of alcohol abuse compared with adolescents with no family history. The results will appear in the February 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The study compared adolescents that had not yet begun to drink, but had a family history of alcohol abuse with those adolescents who had no family history, so that brain activity could be observed during a challenging exercise.
Marisa Silveri is one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging Center within McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. She explained that examining adolescents who have not yet begun drinking eliminates a possible effect coming as a direct result of consuming alcohol. The study wanted to examine whether functional brain differences were observable before alcohol use begins.
The researchers administered the Stroop Interference test while using an MRI scanner to collect fMRI BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) data. The Stroop test requires participants to prevent themselves from automatically reading out loud a color word, and instead focus on a less automatic response of stating the color of the ink that the word is written in.
The MRI was used to indicate activation levels within the brain during the administration of the Stroop test. The researchers recruited 32 adolescents to participate, of which 18 were designated as family history positive (FH+), and the remaining 14 were designated as the family history negative (FH-), or control group.
The results showed that there was a higher level of frontal lobe activation during the Stroop test for FH+ participants. The increased activation reflects that the FH+ group exhibited a decreased neuronal efficiency. In order to maintain an acceptable performance on the Stroop Interference test, they required increased neural recruitment.
The results suggest that those adolescents with a family history of alcohol abuse may exhibit a subtle vulnerability that requires additional effort for the Stroop test. The authors of the study believe that these results indicate that those with a family history of alcohol abuse may be less equipped to manage real-life situations, including possibly the decision whether to consume alcohol.
The authors believe that the information found in this study may be useful in education programs, helping those with a family history of alcohol abuse understand why they may be at a higher risk for developing problems with alcohol use.