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19-01-2012 | Psychology | Article

Teens with alcoholic family history show atypical brain responses to decision making


Free abstract

MedWire News: Adolescents with a family history of alcoholism show reduced activity in prefrontal and cerebellar regions of the brain during risky decision-making compared with their peers without such a family history, say researchers.

Study authors Bonnie Nagel and Anita Cservenka at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, USA, studied a total of 31 adolescents, aged 13-15 years, of whom 18 were family history positive (FHP) for alcoholism and 13 family history negative (FHN). All had little to no history of alcohol use themselves prior to the study.

The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain while completing the Wheel of Fortune (WOF) decision-making task.

The WOF is a two-choice computerized decision-making task where participants choose between different probabilities if winning different monetary amounts. Their choice is then matched to the random computer choice. The participants were instructed to aim to win as much money as possible.

If they opted for a low-probability, high-reward choice (eg, 10 or 30% of the wheel) this was considered a "risky" choice, and a high-probability, low-reward choice (eg, 90 or 70%) was considered a "safe" choice.

The researchers found that the FHP group did not differ from the FHN group in terms of their risk-taking behavior, but they did show less brain response in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and right cerebellar regions when making risky decisions, compared with their FHN peers.

"These areas were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, both of which are important for higher-order day-to-day functioning, such as decision-making," explained Nagel in a press release.

"We believe that weaker activation of these brain areas, known to be important for optimal decision-making, may confer vulnerability towards risky decisions with regards to future alcohol use in adolescents already at risk for alcoholism."

The researchers suggest their findings may help prevent alcoholism by identifying those at risk. In statement to the press, Nagel said: "Our research may aid clinicians who work with high-risk youth to develop effective prevention strategies for these adolescents to promote healthy decision-making."

However, in this same statement they stress that a family history of alcoholism is just one of many factors influencing a teenager's risk for the disease.

"While having a family history of alcoholism may put one at greater risk for alcohol abuse, personality and behavioral risk factors are also important to consider… Future research will need to determine the relative influence of these traits on alcohol abuse risk to be able to design specific prevention strategies for different high-risk populations," said Nagel.

The research is published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

By Chloe McIvor

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