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A History of Alcoholism in the Family Exhibited in Brain Functions

Posted in Alcoholism

Alcoholism is caused by a combination of environmental and biological risk factors. One risk factor for alcoholism, however, may span both biological and environmental risks. A history of alcoholism in the family may provide environmental experiences that increase the likelihood that a person will develop an alcohol use disorder, and this history may be tied to specific functions in the brain.

A new study appearing in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and is available online at Early View. The study examined neural substrates involved in risk-taking for adolescents, comparing those with a history of alcoholism in the family (FHP) with those who did not have a history of alcoholism in the family (FHN).

The researchers discovered that FHP adolescents exhibited atypical activity in certain areas of the brain when participating in an identical task as FHN adolescents.

Bonnie J. Nagel is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University and is a corresponding author for the study. Nagel explained that while it was understood that history of alcoholism in the family is a major risk factor, the researchers wanted to determine whether family history of alcoholism had an impact on risk-taking behaviors prior to initiating any alcohol use.

This is an important distinction, because previous studies have compared risk-taking behaviors between those with a history of alcoholism in the family and those without, but these studies involved participants after their initiation of alcohol use. The current study’s findings are important because they show the differences in the brain prior to an individual having any exposure to alcohol.

The researchers recruited 31 adolescents, 18 of which were FHP and 13 which were FHN, all from the ages of 13 to 15 years. The adolescents had little or no exposure to alcohol prior to the study. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers examined the brain’s response to a decision-making exercise involving Wheel of Fortune. The task involved multiple opportunities to take risks associated with winning different money prizes.

The teens involved in the study did not exhibit different behaviors during the exercise related to family history. However, the researchers discovered that there were two brain regions that showed different responses. The two areas were the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex, which are both key regions associated with decision-making. FHP teens showed brain activity that was weaker when confronted with a risky decision.

The authors believe that the weaker brain activity may provide information about the vulnerability of FHP individuals when faced with alcohol-related decisions. This may lead to increased awareness of those who are prone to alcohol abuse and valuable for the treatment of these individuals.