That fact that heavy drinking impacts the brain of developing youths is a well-known fact. However, now researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and VA San Diego Healthcare System have discovered that certain patterns of brain activity could also help to predict which youths are at risk of becoming problem drinkers. The study is featured online in the August edition of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of 12 to 16 year old teenagers’ brains before they started drinking and who had an fMRI three years later. About half of the teenagers started drinking heavily over the 3-year period but the researchers noted that the fMRI scans taken before these group of teenagers started drinking, they already showed less fMRI response in areas of the brain that were associated earlier with heavy drinking.

Principal researcher Susan Tapert, PhD, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and VA San Diego Healthcare System, said: “Interestingly, this study showed that teens who initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers over the next three years.”

Teenager who drank heavily were noted to less efficiently processing information over time. Leading researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, PhD of UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry, commented: “That’s the opposite of what you’d expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older.”

The team noted that when these youths started to drink heavily, i.e. females who consumed four or more drinks on an occasion, or males who drank five or more drinks, their brains had already started to display patterns that have been observed earlier in heavy drinkers, such as increased activity in certain brain areas when trying to perform a memory test. The brain areas involved in this process are the parietal lobe, which helps process spatial information and the frontal lobe, which amongst other things plays a role in short-term memory tasks, planning and organization.

Squeglia explained:

“At the point these teens began drinking heavily, the fMRI data revealed greater parietal and frontal activity during a spatial working memory task in heavy drinkers versus light drinkers, despite equivalent performance on the tasks and after considering their brain activation patterns before drinking started.”

The results of the study supports evidence that heavy episodic drinking during adolescence leads to subtle alterations in brain functioning and that neural response patterns could potentially be an indicator to show those who are at risk for future substance use.

Squeglia concluded: “Our results suggest there could be a pre-existing vulnerability, and could provide clues to the biological origins of problem drinking.”

Written by Petra Rattue