Parental alcoholism linked to brain changes of teens: Study

It's known that teenagers with a family history of alcoholism are prone to alcohol-abuse and risky decision-making.

Now, a new study has found that such adolescents' brains respond to risky situations differently even if they have never drunk themselves.

Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University found that two areas of the brains of teenagers with a family history of alcoholism, also known as FHP teens, responded differently during decision-making tasks.

"A previous study looked at young adults who were drinkers, therefore, it is hard to say if the differences found were purely a pre-existing neural risk factor for alcohol use," study researcher Megan Herting was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

For the study, which will be published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, Herting and colleagues studied 31 teens between the ages of 13 and 15 from the Portland area.

While 13 of the participants had no family history of alcoholism, also known as a negative family history of alcoholism (FHN), 18 had a family history of alcoholism. All the subjects had little to no experience with drinking alcohol prior to their participation in the study.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the teens' brain activity responses during a decision-making task that presented risky versus safe probabilities of winning different amounts of money.

While no significant differences in task performance was found among teens, regardless of their family history of alcoholism, the fMRI scans showed that two areas of FHP teens' brains responded differently during the tasks.

"The areas were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, both of which are important for higher-order day-to-day functioning, such as decision-making," said co-researcher Bonnie Nagel, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon.

"In these brain regions, FHP adolescents showed weaker brain responses during risky decision-making compared to their FHN peers," Nagel said.

The researchers suggest a weaker activation of these decision-making areas of the brain may pose an increased vulnerability toward risky decisions involving future alcohol use among FHP individuals who are already at risk for alcoholism.

"Taken together with other studies on FHP youth, these results suggest that atypical brain structure and function exist prior to any substance use, and may contribute to an increased vulnerability for alcoholism in these individuals," Nagel said.

However, researchers noted that there are many different genetic and environmental factors involved in forming and influencing an individual's risk of future alcohol abuse.

To help develop better prevention programmes, further research is needed to determine the relative influence of specific traits on alcohol-abuse risk, they added.

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