Page last updated:November 3, 2014

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

Research by an international collaboration of scientists leading the world’s largest longitudinal adolescent brain imaging study to date suggests that it is possible to predict teenage binge-drinking. 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.

IMAGEN recruited over 2,000 teenagers from England, Ireland, France and Germany at age 14 years. Followup 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.

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.

The study aimed to predict those who went on to drink heavily at age 16 using only data collected at age 14. They applied a broad range of measures, developing a unique analytic method to predict which individuals would become binge-drinkers. The reliability of the results were confirmed by showing the same accuracy when tested on a new, separate group of teenagers. The result was a list of predictors that ranged from brain and genetics to personality and personal history factors. The final model was very broad, suggesting that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.

Variables such as personality, sensation-seeking traits, lack of conscientiousness, and a family history of drug use are some of the strongest predictors. Having even a single drink at age 14, was also a strong predictor. That type of risk-taking behaviour was a critical predictor. Teens who had experienced several stressful life events were also among those at greater risk for binge-drinking.

Larger brains were also predictive. Adolescents undergo significant brain changes, so in addition to the formation of personalities and social networks, it’s normal for their brains to reduce to a more efficient size. Teenagers with more immature brains, those that are still larger, are more likely to drink. By gaining a better understanding the probable causal factors for binge-drinking, Garavan, Whelan and colleagues believe that targeted interventions for those most at risk could be applied.

Source: Whelan, R. et al. ‘Neuropsychosocial profiles of current and future adolescent alcohol misusers’ Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature13402.

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