Family History of Alcoholism Changes the Way the Brain Determines Risks

Teenagers with family histories of alcoholism respond differently during risk-taking task than those with no such histories, according to a new study from the Oregon Health and Science University. These physical differences, which show up on brain scans, may partly explain why some individuals are predisposed to alcoholism.

Dr. Bonnie Nagel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, led the research in which 31 young people ages 13 to 15 years old were hooked up to brain scanning technology (magnetic resonance imaging) while they played “Wheel of Fortune.” None of the participants drank alcohol themselves, but 18 were from families with histories of alcoholism. The game they played involved either taking risks or playing it safe to win money. While both the children with family histories of alcoholism, and those with no such histories played the game about the same way, there were differences in their brain scans.

“While our study found that adolescents (with family histories of alcoholism) did not perform significantly different on the Wheel of Fortune task compared to the other adolescents, we found two areas of their brains that responded differently, “said Dr. Nagel. “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. In these brain regions, adolescents (with family histories of alcoholism) showed weaker brain responses during risky decision-making compared to their peers.”

Previous studies involved young adults who had already started drinking. This study involved participants who did not drink alcohol, and yet it indicated that certain genetic factors could already be at work and causing differences in the way adolescents with family histories of alcoholism make decisions.

“Taken together with other studies on youth (with family histories of alcoholism), these results suggest that atypical brain structure and function exist prior to any substance use, and may contribute to an increased vulnerability for alcoholism in these individuals,” Dr. Nagel said.

“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. A combination of genetic and environmental factors is very different for everyone, so some individuals may be at higher risk than others, and certainly there are genetic and environmental factors that can also protect against alcohol abuse. Future research will need to determine the relative influence of these traits on alcohol abuse risk to be able to define specific prevention strategies for different high risk populations.”

The study appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.