Tag Archives: alcohol abuse

How Scientists Predicted With 70% Accuracy Which 14-Year-Olds Would Be Binge Drinkers By 16

Five years ago, Robert Whelan, a former postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at University of Vermont (UVM) and current lecturer at University College in Dublin, joined forces with Hugh Garavan, associate professor of psychiatry at UVM.

The pair of psychiatric researchers wanted to see if they could determine the factors that predicted binge drinking in teens.

In the largest longitudinal (long-term) adolescent brain imaging study to date, they gathered 2,400 14-year-olds from 8 regions across Europe, putting each of them through 10 hours of assessments. These tests included, “neuroimaging to assess brain activity and brain structure, along with other measures such as IQ, cognitive task performance, personality and blood tests”.

The amount of reported drinking in high school has actually been slowly decreasing in recent years

Here’s Robert Whelan describing the researchers’ hopes for the study:

“Our goal was to develop a model to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol… This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

They have kept up with the teens since the initial tests 5 years ago, keeping track of which teens developed habits of binge drinking.

Whelan and Garavan’s study, recently published in the journal Nature, attempted to predict which teens would be binge drinking by the age of 16 using only the data collected when the teens were 14.

By examining around 40 different variables, including factors like brain function, genetics and family history, the researchers were able to design a unique analytical method to predict binge drinking in the test subjects. Here’s Hugh Garavan:

“Notably, it’s not the case that there’s a single one or two or three variables that are critical… The final model was very broad — it suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.”

Hugh Garavan, professor of psychiatry at UVM

As Garavan points out, there weren’t a few major factors that were primarily responsible for putting teens at risk- rather, it was the combination of a number of different, seemingly unrelated factors that predisposed a teen to binge drinking.

The best predictors of binge drinking, according to Garavan, were personality, thrill-seeking tendencies, lack of conscientiousness, and a history of drug use in the family. Teens who had experienced stressful life events, like a divorce or family death, were also more likely to binge drink.

But there was another somewhat surprising find: bigger brains predicted higher chances of binge drinking. As our brains mature during adolescence, they destroy rarely-used neural connections to increase efficiency. This can actually shrink the brain.

Here’s Garavan again:

“There’s refining and sculpting of the brain, and most of the gray matter — the neurons and the connections between them, are getting smaller and the white matter is getting larger… Kids with more immature brains — those that are still larger — are more likely to drink.”

The brain is made up of millions of neurons- the connections or pathways between these neurons are what allow us to function. Pathways that we stop using (like that year of Icelandic you took for a foreign language credit) will eventually disappear

Putting all of these factors together, Whelan and Garavan created a model that predicted with 70% accuracy which 14-year-olds in the study would become binge drinkers by the age of 16.

Gunter Schumann is a professor of biological psychiatry who heads the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at the King’s College (London) Institute of Psychiatry. He was the principal investigator for the study. He hopes that this new research will help identify and support at-risk teens early on in their adolescence:

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior, which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models… This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse.”

Schumann also adds that the data collected from this study will be used to further investigate how environmental factors affect the development of patterns of substance use.

Read more from Science Daily here.

Soldiers Who Kill In Combat Are LESS Likely to Abuse Alcohol? Yes, According to This Study

Going to war is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone could ever imagine enduring. Every year, hundreds of soldiers return home from combat with serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Struggling to re-adjust back into civilian society while simultaneously trying to cope with the psychological side-effects of being exposed to combat often leads war veterans to abuse alcohol and other drugs.

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But a new study co-authored by Cristel Russell, a marketing professor with American University’s Kogod School of Business, and researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research suggests that soldiers who actually kill in combat are in fact less likely to abuse alcohol after being discharged.

Here’s Russell talking about the results of the study:

“We were very surprised by the findings. Most previous research supported the prediction that more traumatic experiences would lead to more negative health outcomes, such as alcohol abuse. We found the opposite- that the most traumatic experiences of killing in combat actually led to a decrease in alcohol abuse post-deployment.”

Cirstel Russell, co-author of the study (Image courtesy of American University)

So why is it that taking the life of another, arguably the most traumatic thing a soldier can experience, leads to a smaller likelihood of alcohol abuse?

The researchers believe that the strange finding is the result of mortality salience. The theory is basically that taking the life of another human being increases a soldier’s sense of their own mortality and vulnerability, making them less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors. Here’s Russell again:

“We reason that a possible explanation may be that soldiers who experience killing during combat become more aware of their own vulnerability to death. Mortality salience is known to have effects on decisions that people make including, in our case, the decision to not take risks and abuse alcohol, presumably to live longer.”

To collect the data, the researchers surveyed 1,397 troops from an Army National Guard Infantry Brigade Combat Team three months before and after their deployment between 2005-2006. The surveys, answered anonymously, asked the soldiers questions about their substance use, with questions about combat experiences added to the post-deployment questionnaire.

The survey revealed that overall, alcohol use increased from 70.8% pre-deployment to 80.5% afterwards, and alcohol abuse increased by over 125%, from 8.51% to 19.15% post-deployment.

Russell and her team plan to do more research into how mortality salience effects soldiers’ behavior after they return from war.

Read more from the Parent Herald here.