What if you could predict who would abuse drugs? You could intervene before the cycle of addiction and loss begins, saving lives, healing families, restoring communities, saving money and... wait, wait, wait. Before we (I) get too excited, let's look at some recent research.
In a study published this week in Nature Communications, an international team of researchers — including Stanford's Brian Knutson, PhD, professor of psychology — found that it may be possible to predict which teens are more likely to use drugs. There are heaps of caveats and the far-out scenarios I listed above are just that -- far out. Nonetheless, it's intriguing work, and I'm (if you couldn't tell) enthusiastic about it.
The team, which included Christian Büchel, MD, a professor of medicine at Universitätsklinikum Hamburg Eppendorf, developed a pool of data on the risk-taking proclivities of about 1,000 14-year-olds. Then, two years later, they reached out to the teens to see if they smoked or drank or used other drugs like heroin. A Stanford press release explains:
Then, Knutson and Büchel focused their attention on 144 adolescents who hadn’t developed drug problems by age 14 but had scored in the top 25 percent on a test of novelty seeking.
Analyzing that data, Knutson and Büchel found they could correctly predict whether youngsters would go on to abuse drugs about two-thirds of the time based on how their brains responded to anticipating rewards. This is a substantial improvement over behavioral and personality measures, which correctly distinguished future drug abusers from other novelty-seeking 14-year-olds about 55 percent of the time, only a little better than chance.
The work is an indication that more accurate prediction may be possible, according to the researchers.
“This is just a first step toward something more useful,” Knutson said in the release. “Ultimately the goal – and maybe this is pie in the sky – is to do clinical diagnosis on individual patients” in the hope that doctors could stop drug abuse before it starts.
Previously: Daedalus, or Icarus? A small set of nerve cells in the brain determines risk-preference settings, Brain connection influences gambling decisions and From memories to addiction: A Q&A with Stanford neuroscientist Robert Malenka
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