MRI brain scans may predict substance abuse risk in adolescents

The current epidemic of opioid abuse in the United States has had devastating repercussions, with many deaths due to overdose, national economic consequences and overwhelmed families and first responders. As with so many diseases, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A study was recently completed in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University by Lindsay Squeglia at the Medical University of South Carolina and Anita Cservenka. The results were published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. The study used neuroimaging of the brain, utilizing magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) which are showing potential as a means of predicting susceptibility to substance abuse disorders.

A deeper understanding of what such procedures can offer, and further study to refine the use of them, may eventually help to pinpoint adolescents at risk for substance abuse and allow intervention using prevention methods. One such strategy is neuropsychological intervention exercises that can reinforce weak cognitive networks in the brain.

Researchers believe the findings are significant due to the prevalence of underage drinking and drug use that is now acknowledged as a public health and societal problem. Complications of underage substance use for the user include deteriorating academic accomplishment, neurocognitive deficits and psychosocial problems.

Young people who start drinking before the age of 15 have four to six times the lifetime rate of alcohol dependence than those who refrain from alcohol until the age of 21 or older. Cservenka noted that alterations in brain structure and neurons due to drug and alcohol abuse are now well-known. Interestingly, adolescents with a family history of substance abuse have shown such brain changes are present before any drug or alcohol use has taken place.

Genetic influences along with peer pressure, individual personality and psychosocial exchanges all contribute to the risk of future substance abuse.

Cservenka noted that family history of alcohol use disorder is a reliable forecaster of substance abuse in blood relatives and increases the risk by three to five times. Neuroimaging reveals a marked overlap in brain scans between those with a genetic history of substance abuse and young people who begin abusing substances during adolescence.

Additional findings in young people with a genetic history of substance use include a lesser volume of limbic brain areas, sex-specific configurations of hippocampal volume and a positive association of familial risk with “nucleus accumbens” volume in the brain.

Adolescents abusing substances have been recognized as performing poorly controlling inhibition and memory, smaller brain areas governing reward and cognitive control and elevated response to reward.

Researchers suggest that substance use may be more prevalent in adolescence due to the emotion and reward areas in the brain developing in advance of the cognitive control systems, consequently causing adolescents to be more prone to risky behavior.

Genetics have been implicated as a significant risk factor. Considering that many parts of the brain are developing well into one’s 20s, the age of onset, type of drug used, presence or absence of early trauma all can play a contributing part. Additionally, the presence or absence of certain behavioral health conditions or mental illness play a big role.

If one’s cognition, attention, concentration or focus is delayed in maturation or affected, say in ADHD, the introduction of drugs could act as negative reinforcement if it ultimately enhances their cognitive deficits. With science evolving at the speed it does, functional neuroimaging that could demonstrate cognitive function or its deficits could potentially help determine risk factors for potential development of addictive disorders.”

White River Academy stays up-to-date on scientific breakthroughs to provide a better understanding of the origins of behavioral health disorders so we can continually improve our modalities to treat them. Our residential treatment facility and boarding school in Delta, Utah, treats adolescent males with mental illness, substance abuse disorders and dual diagnosis. If you would like further information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

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