MRI Predicts Future Alcoholics
Brain scans of children may help doctors diagnose alcoholism before it happens. A new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs shows that certain brain activity patterns are present in children who are more likely to become addicted to alcohol.
The study consisted of 40 participants between the ages of 12 and 16 years old. Each child had a brain scan at the start of the study before they had started drinking. They were then given the same brain scan three years later at the end of the study. By the end of the study about half of the teens had started drinking.
What the study found was truly startling. Teens who had less activity in certain parts of their brains at the beginning of the study were far more likely to become heavy drinkers in the next three years.
By the end of the study, the teens that drank heavily had markedly different brain scans to their non-drinking peers. During memory tests, the teens that drank had a greater spike in brain activity. This is similar to the effects of heavy drinking on adults.
"That's the opposite of what you'd expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older," Lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, of the University of California, San Diego said.
While normal minds can perform the memory test with ease, it takes more brain functions for the heavy drinkers to complete the same task. This, the researchers say, is more proof that heavy drinking can damage the developing brains of teens.
"You're learning to drive, you're getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development," Squeglia said.
The research also lends credibility to the idea that there may be a pre-existing condition that puts some people at a greater risk of developing an alcohol dependency. While this does not mean everyone should be getting their children scanned, it could lead to tests that will help identify peoples future risk of alcoholism.