Young People With Low Responses To Risky Situations More Likely To Drink

Young people who drink more than average amounts tend to be risk-takers. Now a new study from Yale University finds that their brains respond differently to risky situations, which may in turn predispose them to drinking more alcohol.

Dr. Chiang-shan R. Li, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, used magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) technology on the brains of 41 young adults. Half drank more than average amounts of alcohol but were not alcoholics, and the other half were low to moderate drinkers. When the groups were exposed to risky situations, the caudate nucleus and frontal cortex of the brains of the ones who used the most alcohol showed less activation than in the brains of the other group. Dr. Li believes this study may demonstrate that taking risks is less important to people inclined to drink heavily.

"… People who are engaged in heavier drinking show less activation in these structures, presumably because taking a risk is less salient for them," Dr. Li said. "These results thus confirm the importance of risk taking as a psychological process that is associated with alcohol use. It also shows that the caudate nucleus and frontal cortex are playing an important role in mediating this association."

Dr. Li emphasized that the "heavy drinkers" in his study were drinking close to average amounts for their age group, but then most problem drinkers in the United States are young adults. Men are three times more likely to have alcohol problems than women.

"On average, they drank about five times per month, with two to three drinks per occasion, so these are really average social drinkers," he said. "Our findings may suggest that even people who are engaged in average drinking are probably more risk prone than those who do not drink at all. While risk taking can be important in many endeavors it also comes with some consequences that we want to avoid."

"Risk taking can be examined in many different ways," he said. "In this study, we sought to identify the pattern of brain activations during risk taking and examine whether this pattern of activations is different in people who drink more/more frequently. That is, we explored whether there is a neural marker of risk taking that may be associated with heavier drinking in non-dependent young adult drinkers."

Dr. Li has planned other studies, including one focused on how drinking behaviors are shaped by positive expectations, and how brain structures influence that process.

This study appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.