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Who will binge-drink at age 16? European teen study pinpoints predictors

An international collaboration of scientists leading the world’s largest longitudinal adolescent brain imaging study to date has learned that it is possible to predict teenage binge-drinking. 

The research, published in Nature, found that aspects of life experience, personality and brain structure are strong determinants of future alcohol misuse. New simplified versions of the tests are being developed so that children who are at risk of alcohol misuse can be identified and given help.

The data used in the study was collected from the European IMAGEN cohort, led by King’s College London, which aims to learn more about biological and environmental factors that might have an influence on the mental health of teenagers.

The study is the first comprehensive analysis of potential influences involved in teenage binge drinking. The researchers used a model which incorporated factors known or believed to be relevant for the development of adolescent substance abuse. These include personality, history/life events, brain physiology and structure, cognitive ability, genetics and demographics – in total 40 different variables were investigated. 

Surprisingly, when developing their model to predict teenage binge-drinking, the scientists found that even 1-2 instances of alcohol consumption by age 14 was sufficient to predict if the teenagers would binge-drink at age 16. Previous research has suggested that the odds of adult alcohol dependence can be reduced by 10% for each year that alcohol consumption is delayed in adolescence. 

Professor Gunter Schumann, co-author of the paper from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and Coordinator of the IMAGEN project, says: “We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behaviour 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. We now propose to extend analysis of the IMAGEN data in order to investigate the development of substance use patterns in the context of moderating environmental factors, such as exposure to nicotine or drugs as well as psychosocial stress.”

IMAGEN recruited over 2,000 teenagers from England, Ireland, France and Germany at age 14 years. Follow-up work at age 16, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), has shown that it is possible to predict future alcohol misuse two years later, and the scientists wish to continue this work by re-assessing the participants at a later age. The factors assessed in this study will also be applied to predict other types of risk-taking behaviours, such as drug-taking and smoking.

Early onset of teenage binge drinking and progression to alcohol misuse has previously been shown to be genetically influenced and has been consistently shown to be associated with later risk for substance use disorders. However, it is important to understand whether environmental factors can modify the risk imposed by our genes. In this study, negative life experiences were shown to be an important influence on binge drinking behaviour at the age of 14.

Dr Robert Whelan, lead author of the study, formerly from the University of Vermont and currently at University College Dublin, says: “Our goal was 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.”

Hugh Perry, chair of the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, says: “Addiction and substance misuse is a major medical, social and economic problem for the UK. The UK Government spends more than £15 billion annually in meeting the cost of drug-related social and economic harm. The MRC is supporting research that aims to identify the medical harms caused by alcohol consumption and linking these to the various drinking behaviours prevalent in the UK. We believe that establishing such links will lead to breakthroughs in this field and provide compelling evidence to inform public health policy and lay the groundwork for the design of interventions.”

The IMAGEN project was funded by the EU. The MRC funded the follow up work in the UK and Ireland. Follow up work in France and Germany was funded by agencies in their respective countries. Further support was received from Swedish funding agency FORMAS, and the University of Vermont High Performance Computing resources

Paper reference: Whelan, R. et al. 'Neuropsychosocial profiles of current and future adolescent alcohol misusers' Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature13402

For further information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London / (+44) 0207 848 5377