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Are some teens' brains pre-wired for drug and alcohol experimentation?

A study involving approximately 1,900 14-year-olds found that differences in adolescents' brain activity may put some at higher risk for drug and alcohol experimentation than others, even they are exposed to drugs or alcohol.

In that Nature Neuroscience study (subscription required), researchers examined data from an ongoing study of European teens where participants completed behavior testing and underwent magnetic resonance imaging. Participants were also asked about symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and if they had tried alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs. ABC News reports:

Interestingly, [researchers] were able to identify teens who had prior exposure to alcohol, nicotine, or other illicit drugs and were able to identify specific brain patterns associated with early experimentation with these substances. Furthermore, teens with poor impulse control but no prior substance use had brain images similar to those who had already admitted use.

The findings suggest that there may be an opportunity to identify teens at risk before they indulge. "While identifying those at greatest risk of addiction is a complex process with many different factors involved, identifying brain networks specific to impulse control represents the first step" says [lead researcher Robert Whelan, PhD.]


In agreement with prior studies, both adolescents with a history of ADHD or a history of alcohol or drug use had poor impulse control scores. But researchers found that the brain networks activated in teens with ADHD were different than the ones associated with early drug use.

"This suggests that these two conditions may be unnecessarily tightly coupled together," says Whelan. This knowledge may help guide doctors' treatment strategies.

Previously: Study offers insights on how alcohol affects the brain, National survey shows teen girls more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse and Study estimates hospitalizations for underage drinking cost $755 million per year
Photo by Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images

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