Brain Abnormalities Found in Children of Alcoholics, Drug Abusers

Posted on January 17th, 2015
Posted in News

One in five kids in the United States grows up in a home touched by alcoholism or drug addiction. When children of alcoholics or drug abusers reach adulthood, they are four times more likely than others to develop a substance abuse problem, which demonstrates how difficult it actually is to break the cycle of addiction.

But what are the factors at work in this phenomenon? Is it all about environmental influences? Or are there biological characteristics that predispose certain individuals to addiction if they choose to experiment with drugs or alcohol?

No one doubts that environment plays a role when families have a continuing history of addiction. But much recent research has focused on neurobiology and the possibility that children of alcoholics or addiction-prone families may have brain imbalances that leave them especially vulnerable to the lure of drugs and alcohol.

For example, at the University of Texas Health Science Center, researchers fashioned an experiment designed to test the impulsivity of children with caregivers who have struggled with substance abuse. In total, 105 children were enrolled in this research program, 72 of whom came from such a background and 33 of whom did not. The kids were asked to play fast-paced video games that required button pushing in some instances but not in others in order to test how well they were able to control their impulses in response to the signals they received. The thesis was that kids with poor impulse control would hit a button even when they weren’t supposed to, since they wouldn’t be able to control their first instinct to take action when they were prompted to make a decision.

As predicted, the children from substance-abusing homes made more mistakes while playing these games, pushing buttons at inappropriate times more frequently than children from the control group. But measurements of their brain activity during this experiment didn’t fully support the notion that poor impulse control was responsible for their diminished performance.

Neurological monitoring revealed an elevated level of activity in a region called the forebrain, which is associated with decision making, memory, hunger and physical response, as well as impulse control. But this was accompanied by declining function in the neural pathways that allow distant parts of the brain to communicate with each other. So it seems that overall the brains of kids from families with a history of substance abuse don’t work as efficiently and have to labor harder to keep up. Greater activity in the forebrain is apparently not enough to compensate for this loss of operational functionality, and this is why the kids from substance-abusing backgrounds were not able to perform as well on the video game tests.

The researchers responsible for this study emphasize that their findings neither verified nor refuted their initial theory about poor impulse control. They say the unusual brain function they detected indicates the presence of a “generalized information-processing deficit” that is more comprehensive than a simple impulsivity issue. How exactly this might predispose a person to abusing drugs or alcohol in the future is uncertain, but the researchers believe such neurological characteristics could very well be implicated in poor decision making or short-sighted thinking in general.

A Future That Includes Drugs and Alcohol Is Always Uncertain

It is not clear from this research how and why the brains of kids from alcoholic or drug-using homes are failing to develop in a proper way. The study sponsors seem to assume that the abnormalities they detected are inborn, but they could also develop gradually in response to the trauma and anxiety kids experience when they grow up in environments where substance abuse is rampant. They may be an adaptation designed to help these children handle stress or a sign that brain development in kids can be hindered by exposure to intense emotional experiences. The brain-mind relationship is interactive and shaped through a process of mutual feedback, which allows the cause-and-effect arrow to point in either direction depending on the circumstances.

The findings of this study do shed light on neurological issues that people who come from families with a history of substance abuse may have to face. But what is happening could be quite complex and will require further study before any definitive interpretations can be made.

What can be said with certainty is that children raised in environments where substance abuse is common are at risk of repeating this behavior once they reach adulthood. The best way to avoid this trap is to reject the use of drugs and alcohol altogether, and that is an option that many kids from these backgrounds will choose. But if people with family histories related to addiction do decide to use intoxicants, they should do so cautiously and with no illusions about how hazardous their behavior could turn out to be.

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