Case study: studies of the adolescent brain may predict future alcohol abuse

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An important collection of brain studies produced by Georgetown University in collaboration with University of Maryland and funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) demonstrates how brain imaging continues to be at the center of progress in identifying and predicting substance use behaviors.

The studies, referred to as the Adolescent Development Study, encompassed four areas of research, each with distinct participant populations from a pool of 135 adolescents.

Study one:  Functional connectivity between the insula and anterior cingulate predict impulsivity in adolescents at risk for alcohol misuse

In this study, two groups were formed: a high/medium risk and a low risk group, each with 17 participants. The members of the study were administered the Continuous Performance Test (CPT) and simultaneously underwent an MRI scan to assess the connection between executive control in the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex and levels of impulsivity.

Benson Stevens, a graduate student in Georgetown‘s neuroscience program, conducted this study and found that, compared with the low risk group, high/medium risk participants had reduced connectivity between the studied regions. “Less connectivity predicted higher levels of impulsivity,” said Stevens. “Importantly, these effects were observed before the onset of alcohol use given that reduced inhibitory control [that] has been found to be a factor in alcohol use disorders.”

Study two: Evidence of reduced executive cognitive functioning in adolescents at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder

This study sought to determine if a lack of connectivity in the brain’s Executive Control Network (ECN) contributes to teen alcohol abuse. Led by Tomas Clarke, a research assistant and Stuart Washington, Ph.D., the atudy examined the association between parents of 32 participants’ results on the Drug Use Screening Inventory questionnaire and brain connectivity within the ECN, which includes processing emotion, self-control and impulsivity.

Clarke divided the group of 32 adolescents into sub groups; 16 at high/medium risk for alcohol abuse based on the test results, and 16 at low risk. After the participants underwent MRI scans, the results showed ECN connectivity was significantly lower in the high/medium risk group compared to the low risk group.

Study three:  Relationship between DHA intake and activation of impulse control circuitry in early adolescents

Valerie Darcey, a registered dietician and graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, studied the relationship between dietary levels of DHA, an omega fatty acid, and impulsivity. DHA is found primarily in salmon, anchovies, herring, tuna, halibut and mackerel, and liver and is important for neuronal function.

Darcey stated, “My preliminary findings show that while impulsivity levels are the same for kids with high and low levels of DHA in their diets, the brains of kids with low DHA appear to be more active, working harder to compensate, in a region involved in paying attention to the task and a region that participates in executive function. This tells us that the brains of the kids eating less DHA may not be developing like those eating more DHA.”

Study four:  Relationship between sugar intake, impulsivity and increased sensitivity to immediate rewards in adolescents

This study was conducted by Dana Estefan, a former research assistant in Dr. John VanMeter’s lab at Georgetown where the Adolescent Development Study originated. She examined the association between sugar intake, as reported by study participants on a food questionnaire and their performance on two tests, the CPT and the Temporal Discounting Task (TD). The tests measure impulsivity and ability to delay gratification. The CPT was administered while the participants were scanned by MRI.

Findings: The TD task did confirm that kids with high amounts of added sugar in their diets preferred immediate rewards more than kids with lower levels of sugar in their diets. In addition, the CPT task revealed that teens with higher sugar intake showed greater activation in the right superior temporal gyrus and right insula, brain centers linked to impulsivity and emotional effect.

White River Academy, places an emphasis on character development in adolescent males with behavioral issues, offering life skills classes and community service-oriented programs to instill qualities that lead to a productive and successful life post-recovery. For questions about White River Academy, please call 866-520-0905.

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