Even though consuming alcohol under the age of 21 is illegal in the US, around 11% of individuals between the ages of 12 and 20 drink. But a new study published in the journal Nature details a test that may predict whether teenagers are likely to engage in binge drinking at the age of 16.
According to the research team, led by Dr. Robert Whelan of University College Dublin in Ireland, their study is the first to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the factors that may influence teenage binge drinking - defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as consuming so much alcohol within 2 hours that blood alcohol concentration levels reach 0.08 g/dL.
Past studies have suggested that genetics may influence whether a teenager is likely to binge drink and subsequently fall into alcohol misuse and develop substance use disorders.
But the team says it is important to determine whether environmental factors can modify the teenage binge drinking risk supposedly predisposed in genes, which is what they set out to do with their study.
Brain structure, life events and personality are main predictors of teen binge drinking
To reach their findings, Dr. Whelan and colleagues analyzed data from a European study called IMAGEN, which recruited more than 2,000 teenagers from England, Ireland, France and Germany at the age of 14.
Researchers found that brain structure and certain life events and personality traits at the age of 14 may predict the likelihood of binge drinking at the age of 16.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at participants' brain structure and physiology at the age of 14, and gathered a wide range of data including information on their personality, life history and events, cognitive abilities, genetics and demographics.
Using this information, the team created a model to see if certain factors could predict the likelihood of binge drinking at the age of 16. Information on subjects' consumption of alcohol was gathered at the ages of 14 and 16.
The model revealed that participants who engaged in binge drinking at the age of 16 had reduced gray matter volume at age 14, as well as greater activity in the superior frontal gyrus of the brain in response to receiving a reward.
The researchers also found that life events, such as romantic or sexual relationships, and negative life experiences at the age of 14 represented current binge drinking and were predictors of future binge drinking. Furthermore, the team were surprised to find that even 1-2 incidences of alcohol consumption at the age of 14 were predictors of binge drinking 2 years later.
In addition, the researchers identified certain personality traits - such as feeling rewarded by new experiences - that were predictors of future binge drinking.
Model could enable early interventions to prevent alcohol misuse
According to the investigators, past research has indicated that for every year alcohol consumption is delayed in adolescence, the risk of alcohol dependence is reduced by 10%.
The researchers believe their model will be useful in determining which children are at risk of future alcohol misuse so early interventions can be actioned, and could even pinpoint whether such populations are at risk of other addictive behaviors, such as drug use and smoking.
Study co-author Gunter Schumann, professor of biological psychiatry at the Medical Research Council Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King's College London in the UK, says:
"We aimed to develop a 'gold standard' model for predicting teenage behavior that can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models. This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse.
We now propose to extend analysis of the IMAGEN data in order to investigate the development of substance use patterns in the context of moderating environmental factors, such as exposure to nicotine or drugs as well as psychosocial stress."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in PLOS One, which revealed that just one binge drinking session could be harmful to health.