Is the tendency to use drugs determined by brain activity?

Developmental characteristics for problematic drug use discovered
In a recent study, scientists from the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) have investigated why some young people tend to use excessive drugs while others can resist it. By measuring the brain activity of adolescents, the researchers were able to identify various characteristics that could promote the development of addiction in adolescents, according to the UKE.

Various factors have been investigated in previous studies as the cause of a tendency to use drugs. The spectrum ranged from genetic predisposition to parenting influences to aspects of society as a whole. In their current study, UKE researchers, together with colleagues from the United States, investigated possible influences of brain activity on the tendency to use drugs. The researchers published the results of their study in the journal "Nature Communications".

Get to the bottom of developing addictions in adolescence
Using the data from the Europe-wide sample IMAGEN, the research team led by Professor Dr. Christian Büchel, head of the Institute for Systemic Neurosciences at UKE, was looking for possible developmental characteristics for addictions in adolescents. The IMAGEN sample project was initiated in 2007 by the EU and continued in Germany with funds from the Federal Ministry of Research (BMBF) as part of the AERIAL project. "The research project is the first and largest longitudinal study in the world to get to the bottom of the development of addictions in adolescence," reports the UKE.

Brain activity checked in 14- and 16-year-olds
To date, the study has included 2,000 girls and boys aged 14 who come from the UK, Ireland, France and Germany. 250 young people come from Hamburg, where they are looked after by Prof. Büchel and colleagues. All participating adolescents, 14 and 16 years old, were interviewed intensively, subjected to psychological tests and genetically examined, the researchers report. Their brain activities were also recorded using images of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The third follow-up phase is to follow this year.

Indications of problem drug use
Before the start of the study, according to the UKE, it was known that adolescents with problem drug use have a penchant for adventure. Therefore, the team led by Prof. Büchel analyzed the data of young people, in whom the desire for adventure was particularly pronounced at the age of 14, in more detail. The evaluation of the measured data of brain activity provided possible characteristics "that could indicate problematic use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis at the age of 16," the university hospital said.

New approaches to prevention
"Our results show that below-average activation of the reward system in the brain and less function of the prefrontal control areas of the brain favor later problematic drug use," emphasizes Prof. Büchel. In addition, it had become clear during the data analysis that other brain areas also had a developmental lag in the affected adolescents at the age of 14. According to the researchers, these developmental features could enable new approaches to prevention.

"Our investigation gives us the opportunity to identify early on - at the age of 14 - those adolescents who are particularly at risk of developing problem drug use at the age of 16," concludes Prof. Dr. Büchel.

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