A team of researchers from the University of Georgia found that a family-based program to help teenagers avoid taking part in risky behavior including substance abuse has been found particularly effective in young adolescents who have the genetic risk factor that predisposes such behavior. The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and was published in Child Development’s May/June issue.
The investigators observed the progress of 11-year old participants of a family-based prevention program called Strong African American Families (SAAF) as well as a comparison group for two and a half years. The subjects carry the short allele form of 5-HTTLPR, a common genetic variation that is present in 40 percent of the population and has been linked by separate studies to impulsivity, low-self control, substance use and binge drinking.
The study found that “adolescents with this gene who participated in the SAAF program were no more likely than their counterparts without the gene to have engaged in drinking, marijuana smoking and sexual activity.” Subjects classified in the comparison group were also found to be twice as likely to have engaged in risky behavior relative to the other group.
“The findings underscore that ‘nurture’ can influence ‘nature’ during adolescence, a pivotal time when delaying the start of alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors can have a significant impact on healthy child development,” said Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., acting director for NIAAA. “This study is one of the first to combine prevention research with a gene-environment study design.”
According to NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, the study is a good example of an efficient way of targeting prevention intervention on the basis of an individual’s genetic composition in order to minimize the risk for developing substance abuse.
The prevention program was found to be particularly beneficial to children who manifest the genetic risk factor for engaging in risky behavior, says lead author Gene H. Brody, Ph.D., Regents professor and Director of the university’s Center for Family Research. “The results emphasize the important role of parents, caregivers, and family-centered prevention programs in promoting healthy development during adolescence, especially when children have a biological makeup that may pose a challenge.”
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