Brain Networks Show Some at Increased Risk For Drug Use

Parents worry about their kids getting in with the wrong crowds, having low self-esteem, and other possible risk factors for experimenting with and then developing an addiction to drugs.

A new study suggests that there may someday be a way for youth to be screened for a higher risk of drug use, by examining the networks in the brain. Researchers at the University of Vermont have discovered that the way that the brain is structured in an individual may affect how impulsive they are, and therefore, impact how likely they are to try illegal drugs.

The study is the largest ever to use imaging of the brain to examine the specific neural networks that affect drug use. The study included approximately 1,900 14 year olds.

Led by Dr. Robert Whelan and Dr. Hugh Garavan, the study’s findings provide support for the belief that some teens are at a higher risk for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Their findings are printed in a recent issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The findings are important because scientists have long questioned whether drug use is impacted by certain composure of neurons in the brain or if the use of drugs impacts the brain’s patterns. Dr. Garavan explains that the wiring seems to precede the introduction of drug use to the brain. Dr. Garavan was principal investigator for a previous study called IMAGEN, from which the data was drawn for the current study.

The researchers found that when imaging reveals decreased activity in a neuron network in the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain, the individual’s risk is increased for experimentation with tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs in early teen years.

When the networks in this region of the brain are not as productive, it results in a child who is more impulsive. When faced with an opportunity to try drinking or drugs, instead of refusing the opportunity, teens with decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex are instead jumping on the chance to try a dangerous substance.

In addition, the researchers showed a connection between other discovered neuron networks that are involved with the development of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are areas of the brain that are different from those affecting drug and alcohol experimentation.

This information is useful in understanding previous research that suggested that there may be a connection between functions in the brain that affect drug use and those that affect ADHD. The findings in the current study show that the two are affected by separate areas of the brain. This suggests that ADHD is not a predictor for drug use, as previous studies have found.

The findings of the study provide important information for the understanding of both drug experimentation and ADHD. The ability to examine very specific areas of the brain for the risk of both issues may someday lead to effective screening tools.