Brain imaging may help identify teens at risk of increasing alcohol use

A whole brain imaging study finds that excess grey matter, the darker tissue of the brain, can predict escalating drinking behaviour in teens.
Press pack
  • Views 41
  • Annotations

Teenagers with large amounts of grey matter in the brain at age 14 are more likely to increase their alcohol use over the next five years, according to a whole brain imaging study reported today in eLife.

The findings may help scientists understand what makes some teens more vulnerable to developing alcohol use disorders. They could also help identify teens who are at increased risk of excessive drinking and enable early interventions to curb alcohol use.

“Adolescence is a critically vulnerable time for the development of alcohol drinking habits that may lead to considerable consequences later in life, including alcohol addiction,” says lead author Simone Kühn, Professor of Neural Plasticity at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, and Group Leader at the Center for Lifespan Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany. “During this period, teens undergo a critical period of brain development and adopt many new behaviours, making it an important time to intervene.”

Previous studies have suggested that differences in certain parts of the brain in early adolescence may make some young people more vulnerable to developing addictions. Kühn and her colleagues went a step further by using structural magnetic resonance imaging to look for differences throughout the entire brain that might predict increasing teen alcohol use over the next five years.

They looked at detailed brain images of 1,814 healthy 14-year-olds participating in the IMAGEN project, a large European study of adolescents, and compared that to the participants’ self-reported drinking habits at ages 14, 16 or 17, and 19. They used computers to break the images into small 3D cubes called voxels and built models based on this data to predict changes in the teens’ drinking behaviour over time.

The models revealed that teens with more grey matter in the caudate nucleus, the region of the brain involved with learning, and the left cerebellum, which is associated with thinking and movement, had a higher chance of increasing their drinking habits over time.

Similar brain differences in adolescents have been linked to the development of psychiatric disorders later in life, which reinforces the idea that structural differences in the brain may contribute to both psychiatric and substance use disorders. But the cause of these differences isn’t yet clear. However, Kühn notes that the amount of grey matter in the brain grows through childhood and then peaks during adolescence when unnecessary brain connections are pruned away.

“Our results may reflect a slowing down of this pruning activity or an overproduction of brain connections,” Kühn concludes. “Future research involving multiple neuroimaging techniques will be needed to help answer this question.”

Media contacts

  1. Emily Packer
    eLife
    e.packer@elifesciences.org
    +441223855373

About

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science. We publish important research in all areas of the life and biomedical sciences, including Neuroscience, which is selected and evaluated by working scientists and made freely available online without delay. eLife also invests in innovation through open-source tool development to accelerate research communication and discovery. Our work is guided by the communities we serve. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Learn more at https://elifesciences.org/about.

To read the latest Neuroscience research published in eLife, visit https://elifesciences.org/subjects/neuroscience.