Scientists say they can predict if teenagers will become binge drinkers

More than 40 variables involved in way of predicting future alcohol abuse

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:00

Scientists believe they have developed a way of predicting which teenagers will become binge drinkers.

The new research, published this week in the journal Nature, was led by neuroscientist Dr Robert Whelan of UCD in conjunction with scientists from the University of Vermont.

The research found that a large number of factors, including brain function, personality, life experiences and genetics – in total over 40 different variables – can help scientists predict with about 70 per cent accuracy which teenagers will become binge drinkers.

Some of the best predictors included personality variables like sensation-seeking traits, lack of conscientiousness, and other variables such as a family history of drug use. Having even a single drink at age 14 was also a powerful predictor.

“That type of risk-taking behaviour – and the impulsivity that often accompanies it – was a critical predictor,” said Dr Whelan. “In addition, those teens that had experienced several stressful life events were among those at greater risk for binge-drinking.”

The relative importance of the variables was “difficult to quantify” however.

“This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

The research is the largest longitudinal adolescent brain imaging study to date, which used machine learning to analyse data on neurobiological, life experiences and environmental influences from 700 adolescents.

Senior author Hugh Garavan from the University of Vermont said it was “notable” that it was not a single one or two variables that were critical. “The final model was very broad – it suggests a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking,” he said.

According to Alcohol Action Ireland, the most recent survey of drinking among European 15 and 16-year-olds found 40 per cent of Irish respondents reported binge drinking during the previous month.

Dr Whelan said these figures were “of concern” because early alcohol use is a “strong risk factor” for alcohol dependence in adulthood.