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UCSD Study Shows MRIs Could Predict Heavy Drinking


Susan Tapert, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, UC San Diego

Jennifer Rikard, Ph.D., Co-coordinator of the ASPIRE Program at SDSU. She was part of the team that developed the Alcohol e-check up to go online tool


UC San Diego researchers have identified a link between brain activity and tendency toward alcohol abuse.

Heavy drinking isn’t confined to alcoholics. A recent survey found nearly 20 percent of students in San Diego high schools have had at least five drinks at any one time.

A new study from UC San Diego suggests there could be a biological origin to binge drinking. The research is based on a series of brain scans.

Researchers at UC San Diego have been scanning the brains of a group of young people for more than 10 years.

Tim Little, 24, has been involved since the beginning. Little says a friend told him about it.

"He came upon a flyer at the corner by Del Taco in Claremont, and said, 'hey listen, they’re doing brain scans, brain imaging, and you know, they’ll pay us a couple of hundred bucks,'" Little recalled. "'Do you want to check it out?' And when we were kids, 13 or something. So I was like, 'yeah, hop down in it,' and became part of the study that way."

Once a year since he was 13, Little has gotten his brain scanned at the Keck building on the UC San Diego campus.

Inside, the MRI scanner sits behind locked doors. It looks like the kind you’d find in a hospital. But this one allows more detailed, refined images.

While their brains are being scanned, study participants are asked to solve puzzles, complete simple tasks and answer questions.

This study focused on 40 young people. Their brains were first scanned when they were 12 to 14 years old, prior to the onset of drinking. Researchers scanned them again three years later.

Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and the study's principal investigator, said she found some surprising results when she looked back at the original scans.

"There’s actually some differences in the brains of the kids who later went on to drink or use substances, as compared to those who didn’t," Tapert said. "The kids who later were going to start drinking showed less brain activation in some frontal and parietal areas as they were doing the tasks. They did okay on the tasks, but this maybe showed that they weren’t as fully engaged in the tasks as the kids who were gonna get through adolescence without starting to drink heavily."

Tapert explained that as kids go through adolescence, their brains generally become more efficient. In other words, their brains don’t require as much neural energy to accomplish a given cognitive task. But she says for the kids who later started to drink heavily, their brains worked harder to accomplish the same task.

"Well, there is something that we need to take note of, about these activation patterns prior to the onset of substance use, that might be linked to some kind of feature related to maybe self-control, propensity for intoxication, kind of other kind of risk-taking propensities," Tapert explained.

UC San Diego’s Marc Schuckit has been studying alcoholism for more than 30 years. The psychiatrist’s research focuses on how genetics and environmental factors influence heavy drinking and other substance abuse.

Schuckit said Tapert’s study suggests there may be patterns in adolescent brains that indicate the likelihood of future alcohol abuse. But he pointed out that doesn’t mean doctors could tell someone they’re going to be an alcoholic by the time they’re 25.

"But I can do, I think, and what people in our field can look forward to, is I can say to you, 'you are carrying an increased risk for diabetes or for alcoholism, and regarding that risk, it appears that it operates through this particular characteristic,'" Schuckit explained. "Perhaps impulsivity related to some of the risk, perhaps a low sensitivity to alcohol for others. And then I can say, 'considering the fact that you carry a risk related to that particular factor, I think I can work with you if you’re willing to, to help you try to diminish your risk.'"

Researchers haven’t told Tim Little whether his early brain scans showed any unusual patterns.

But he says he did drink when he was in high school. Heavily at times.

These days, Little says he’ll have a beer every now and then.

And if it turns out Little has a biological propensity for alcoholism?

"Shoot, you know, I’d have to make a whole lifestyle change," Little said. "If that was the case, I’d have to give it up, you know, I’d have to focus on being healthy. Try to, you know, try to make the best of what cards I got dealt. You know, if that’s the case, obviously, changes have to be made."

A much larger study is underway to determine how reliably certain brain patterns predict future substance abuse.

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