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Brain’s Impulse Control Linked to Genetic Risk Factor for Teen Alcoholism

Genetics can affect the size of a particular area in the brain and this can in turn be partly responsible for an individual’s increased vulnerability to alcoholism. This is according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers headed by Dr. Shirley Hill, Ph.D, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The study found that the size of a brain region called the right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) seems to hold the key for a teenager’s predisposition for alcohol use. The area appears to be smaller in teens and adolescents who come from families with multiple alcohol-dependent members.

The orbitofrontal cortex is that part of the brain that is associated with emotional processing and impulsive behavior. Previous research has linked associated the underdeveloped OFC to impulsiveness that is characteristic of teenagers.

The results of this study were published in Biological Psychiatry.

Genetic variations

The study looked examined the brains of 107 young adult and teenage subjects through magnetic resonance imaging. The participants were composed of individuals coming from families with multiple alcohol-dependent members and teenagers who were not related to people addicted to drugs or alcohol. Aside from observing gene variations, the respondents were also asked to answer well-validated questionnaires to assess their impulsive tendencies.

The scientists found variants in two genes, 5-HTT and BDNF that seem to be associated with reduced white matter volume in the OFC, which, in turn was linked to increased impulsiveness.

“We are beginning to understand how genetic factors can lead to structural brain changes that may make people more vulnerable to alcoholism,” says Dr. Hill. “These results also support our earlier findings of reduced volume of other brain regions in high-risk kids.”

The study suggests that differences in sizes of particular brain regions can be further investigated so that they can be used as benchmarks for identifying an adolescent’s predisposition for alcohol use long before the child starts adopting the habit of excessive alcohol intake. It also led the researchers to conclude that there are certain factors that may actually influence alcoholic tendencies.

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