MRI Technique Used to Identify Future Risk of Binge Drinking

January 6, 2020
Whitney J. Palmer

Brain scans reveal link between strength of inhibition control and early binge drinking behavior.

The brain could hold clues about who will engage in excessive alcohol use. In recently published research, MRI brain scans were used to identify which adolescents will likely struggle most with binge drinking in adulthood.

Using a specific technique called BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) MRI, investigators from the University of California San Diego were able to pinpoint that young adults who have less inhibition control will likely engage in binge drinking earlier. The BOLD technique generates functional MRI images that rely on cerebral blood flow to delineate activity in regions of the brain.

The goal, researchers said, is to provide a potential neural marker that could identify individuals who will struggle with regulating alcohol use later in life, as well as inform interventions that could postpone heavier alcohol consumption until post-adolescence. The results were published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Binge drinking is characterized mainly by the reduced ability to control alcohol intake. This problem, researchers said, is related to a neurological process called inhibitory control that is associated with several brain regions. Existing evidence shows that, in adolescents who haven’t yet started to drink, specific changes to these brain responses are linked to an increased risk of future alcohol use. Little is known, however, about whether any brain response changes could point to any future binge drinking risk among those individuals who already drink alcohol.

To answer this question, researchers conducted BOLD MRI on 29 participants who enrolled in a larger study at ages 12-14 and had transitioned, over 15 years, from minimal alcohol use to frequent binge drinking. Each person underwent the scan around age 18 while completing a task that evaluated inhibitory control. During the test, participants were asked to press a button when they saw any shape except a small square appear on a screen. If the square appeared, they were instructed not to press the button. BOLD detected the blood flow changes that occurred with neuron activation.

Overall, participants performed the task correctly 87 percent of the time, and BOLD revealed activity in areas of the brain previously associated with inhibitory control. Researchers also discovered the strength of the BOLD signal correlated with how soon adolescents transitioned to binge drinking – the weaker the signal, the earlier they developed the behavior.

Larger studies are needed to confirm the results, researchers said.

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