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Missing Brain Connections Put Teens at Higher Risk for Alcoholism
Teenagers at risk for future alcoholism tend to have reduced connections in key brain regions, new research finds.
The impaired functioning found in the four-part study from Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine was not entirely new information: a connection between such reduced functioning and alcohol abuse had been found in previous research. However, those studies left doubt about whether impaired function was a cause of alcohol abuse or whether alcohol abuse was a cause of impaired functioning. By using the Drug Use Screening Inventory questionnaire to predict future alcohol use disorders, this study was able to show that reduced brain development likely contributes to alcohol abuse rather than the other way around.
Child brains and even adolescent brains are not simply miniaturized versions of adult brains. They are missing many important connections between different parts of the brain which need to form before a brain becomes fully mature.
Scientists believe that these not-yet-formed connections help to explain why teenagers are more inclined to be impulsive, to take risks and to make poorly thought-out decisions. Some researchers also believe that the different rates at which adolescent brains develop and form these connections could help to distinguish those teenagers who are at the greatest risk for alcoholism or other alcohol use disorders.
For the first part of the study, the researchers divided 135 teens into two groups based on the results of the Drug Use Screening Inventory questionnaire. One group was determined to be at medium or high risk for alcohol abuse, while the second group consisted of those found to be at low risk for alcohol abuse.
The study evaluated each teen for connections and functions in the brain’s executive control network (ECN). The ECN includes the areas of the brain that regulate impulsivity, emotions and self-control.
Reduced Impulse Control
The remaining studies undertaken by Georgetown and Maryland found links between alcohol use, impulsivity and physiological and dietary factors that influence impulse control. The first of these related studies found that less connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and insular cortex in adolescent brains was found to result in more impulsive behavior. In turn, less impulse control is an established risk factor for alcohol use disorders.
Diet Plays a Role
The final two studies suggested that certain dietary factors can contribute to impulsivity levels, and as a result may influence a teen’s risk of alcoholism. Increased sugar intake was found to have a negative impact on impulse control, suggesting that diets high in sugar may put teens at higher risk for alcohol problems. The researchers also found that lower levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which did not affect impulsivity levels, appeared to force the brain to work harder when it came to executive functioning tasks.
It is no secret that teenagers are more likely to be impulsive, to experiment and to take risks, and that drugs and alcohol often play a role in this risk-taking and experimentation. However, we are only just beginning to understand why this sort of behavior is common to adolescents. This new research suggests that it is not simply ignorance and lack of experience that puts some teens at risk for alcohol abuse, but true qualitative differences in their developing brains.