FEB 28, 2017 8:55 AM PST

Brain Scans Predict Risk of Future Drug Abuse in Teens

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Can a brain scan reveal whether a young teen is more or less likely to engage in problematic drug use in the future? Results from a new study suggest there are neural markers predictive of this risk.

The study, conducted by researchers from Stanford, analyzed MRI data from 144 teenagers at the age of 14, who had never engaged in recreational drug use before. While their brains were being imaged, the teens were simultaneously assessed with behavioral tests called “Monetary Incentive Delay Tasks.” Essentially, the teens played video games for points, which can later be exchanged into money. Such test allows the researchers to measure impulsivity, novelty seeking, and reward processing.

"We wanted to know whether reward anticipation brain activity at age 14 would predict later substance use in risk kids – who are high novelty seekers," said Brain Knutson, from Stanford University, a professor of psychology at Stanford, and co-director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute’s NeuroChoice program.

Ironically, teens who showed less brain engagement at the prospects of monetary reward were at higher risks for drug use later on. "We found that at age 14, high novelty seekers who had less of a neural response to anticipated reward were more likely to use substances at age 16,” Knutson explained.

The brain areas under scrutiny included the mesolimbic (ventral striatal and midbrain) and prefrontal cortical (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) regions. But why less activity in these areas would correlate with higher impulsivity, the researchers don’t exactly know yet. "It could be due to inheritance, environmental influences, or (most likely) a combination of the two," said Knutson. They hypothesize that those who show less motivation towards traditional rewards like money may have a higher propensity for unconventional rewards like drugs.

"What the neural marker does tell us is that they likely are motivated less (not more) by conventional rewards," said Knutson. "This might suggest that interventions for these kids might target more powerful but alternative rewarding activities."

Indeed, the team hopes that with more work, the scan can be used to help physicians identify vulnerable teenagers at an early point when interventions may be more effective. But more studies are required to confirm the validity of these neural markers before this tool can be used in clinical settings.

Additional sources: Stanford University, Wired, BBC

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
AUG 27, 2019
Health & Medicine
AUG 27, 2019
On the bright side, optimists may live longer
Do you see the glass half empty, or half full? If your answer is full, you may be in luck: Optimistic people live 11-15% longer than pessimists, according...
OCT 10, 2019
Cardiology
OCT 10, 2019
Parkinson's Disease is Present in the Blood
Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system. Often starting with a barely noticeable tremor in one hand, the disease affects a...
NOV 07, 2019
Neuroscience
NOV 07, 2019
Reading, Hearing Language Connects Meaning to Same Region in the Brain
Scientists at the University of California Berkeley used improved functional MRI resolution to show that similar neural circuits in the same regions of the...
DEC 22, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 22, 2019
Can Google Health's AI interpret X-rays as well as radiologists?
Patients presenting with severe coughs, chest pain or suspected infections are more than likely to be sent for a chest X-ray -- the most commonly taken med...
FEB 05, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
FEB 05, 2020
A new CRISPR-based test for coronavirus infections
A surge in infections has caused panic surrounding the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak to reach a fever pitch. Despite being only moderately infective, 20...
FEB 07, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
FEB 07, 2020
New diagnostic technology uses levitating proteins
Intrinsic biophysical properties of proteins hold valuable clues about how they function and their role in disease. Take, for example, one of the most comm...
Loading Comments...