A new study has said that adolescent brains may respond differently during risky decision-making situations if the teens have a family history of alcoholism.
Researchers know that adolescents with a family history of alcoholism (FHP) are at risk for developing alcohol use disorders. Some studies have shown that, compared to their peers, FHP adolescents have deficits in behavioural inhibition.
A study of the neural substrates of risk-taking in both FHP adolescents and their peers with a negative family history of alcoholism (FHN) has shown that FHP youth demonstrated atypical brain activity while completing the same task as the FHN youth.
"We know that a familial history of alcoholism is a significant risk factor for future alcohol abuse," said Bonnie J. Nagel, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University as well as corresponding author for the study.
"We were interested in determining whether adolescents at heightened risk for alcohol use made more risky decisions during a laboratory task compared to their lower-risk peers."
"Additionally, we wanted to examine whether differences in brain responses when making risky decisions were present in these two groups."
Study authors recruited 31 youth - 18 FHP (12 males, 6 females) and 13 FHN (8 males, 5 females) - between 13 and 15 years of age from the local community. All of the youth had little to no alcohol involvement prior to their participation in the study.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to examine brain responses of the youth during a Wheel of Fortune (WOF) decision-making task, which presented risky versus safe probabilities of winning different amounts of money.
"While our study found that FHP adolescents did not perform significantly differently on the WOF task compared to the FHN adolescents, we found two areas of the brain that responded differently," said Nagel.
"These areas were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, both of which are important for higher-order day-to-day functioning, such as decision-making.
"In these brain regions, FHP adolescents showed weaker brain responses during risky decision-making compared to their FHN peers. We believe that weaker activation of these brain areas, known to be important for optimal decision-making, may confer vulnerability towards risky decisions with regards to future alcohol use in adolescents already at risk for alcoholism," Nagel added.
The study will be published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.