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Imaging May Help Predict Which Teens Will Binge-Drink

July 4, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Brain imaging plus a whole bunch of other assessments and measurements can predict with about 70 percent accuracy which young teens are likely to become binge drinkers, according to an ongoing European study.

The findings, published online Wednesday in Nature, are part of the IMAGEN research project, which investigates mental health and risk-taking behavior in European teenagers. This particular slice of IMAGEN attempts to use data collected at age 14 to predict who will develop a pattern of binge-drinking by age 16.

Senior author Hugh Garavan, PhD, said accurate predictions require examining a wide range of factors:

Notably, it’s not the case that there’s a single one or two or three variables that are critical. The final model was very broad. It suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.

Dr. Garavan is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. He was quoted a University of Vermont news release.

The assessment tools included both structural and functional MRI of the brain. The imaging uncovered the fact that one risk factor was a larger than average brain. Dr. Garavan explained that brains normally shrink during adolescence to a more efficient size. “There’s refining and sculpting of the brain, and most of the gray matter, the neurons and the connections between them, are getting smaller, and the white matter is getting larger,” he said. “Kids with more immature brains—those that are still larger—are more likely to drink.”

Other risk factors include sensation-seeking personality traits, lack of conscientiousness, a family history of drug abuse, and a personal history of multiple stressful life events. Also, those who had taken even a single drink by age 14 were more likely to be binge drinkers by 16.

Gunter Schumann, MD, a professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, an author of the Nature article, and IMAGEN’s principal investigator, said the development of this risk profile was a preliminary step. “We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models,” he said.

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