Differences in the Brain Can Contribute to Teen Alcohol Abuse

A collection of four studies performed on teenage brains indicates that there might be differences in the brain among teens that could point to whether an adolescent might later abuse alcohol.


The four studies indicated that teens who have reduced neural connections might be more at risk for alcohol abuse. Another study indicated that impaired brain connections could lead to impulsivity, which could lead to regular alcohol use. Two other studies revealed that impulsivity in teens increased with higher levels of sugar intake and with higher levels of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, otherwise known as DHA.


Along these lines, a different study was administered by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas exploring the differences in brain regions that are associated with risk taking in teens. The study done at Center for BrainHealth investigated the behavior of 36 adolescents between the ages of 12-17. Participants were screened for risk taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and physical violence. Each teen underwent MRI testing in order for researchers to examine the communication between brain regions. The study revealed that risk taking teens exhibit hyperconnectivity between the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactivity, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotional regulation and critical thinking skills.


In addition to being impulsive, the changing and growing teenage brain make adolescents vulnerable to risky behavior, including drinking. Even though teens may be experiencing their physical health, mental capacities, and strength, it may not be surprising to know that they are six times more likely than children ages 10 to 14 to experience death by injury. Alcohol rates are high relative to rates for those of other ages. Crime rates are highest among male teens and mortality rates for teens of both sexes are high at this stage of life. Teens are also at risk for developing depression, anxiety, and addictions.


The four studies described above worked with 135 preteens with an average age of 12.6 years. These boys and girls underwent structural and functional MRI to investigate the relationships between brain development and their behavior. These four studies also used questionnaires, surveys, and two tests to measure impulsivity and risky behavior.


The first of these four studies found that the connectivity in the Executive Control Network (ECN) in teen brains were significantly lower in those teens who were assessed to be at high to medium risk for drinking and alcohol abuse. The leader of this study indicated that “impaired functioning in the ECN is linked to an earlier age of drinking onset and higher frequency of drinking”. He also commented “our findings suggest reduced prefrontal cortex development” tends to comebefore the presence of “alcohol use and be related to future alcohol use disorders.”


The second of these four studies found that there were higher levels of impulsivity among those teens who had lower connectivity between the executive control and the prefrontal cortex as well as the insular cortex in the teen brain.


The third study found that there might be a strong relationship between higher levels of sugar intake and higher levels of impulsivity. The results of the study coincides with the findings of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, administered by the Center for Disease Control, which monitors six priority health-risk behaviors that play a role in the causes of death, disability, and social problems among teens and adults. Risky behavior linked to unhealthy diets include not eating the right amounts of fruit or drinking fruit juices, not eating any vegetables, not drinking milk, drinking sugar based drinks such as sodas, not eating breakfast.


Lastly, the fourth study indicates that there is a relationship between the DHA and the level of impulsivity in teens. DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid, which is found in cold-water fish and is important for neural connection in the brain. The research indicated that those teens eating less DHA might not be developing as well as other teens. Those adolescents who had lower levels of DHA tended to have brains that worked harder, indicating the brain was trying to compensate in regions of the brain having to do with paying attention and executive functioning.


Certainly, each teen brain is different and there are various factors that can facilitate its growth. Knowing more about the brain can support parents, teachers, and experts in keeping teens healthy and happy.