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Predicting which teenagers will be binge drinkers may be possible

A study in Nature says it may be possible to predict which teenagers will become binge drinkers and abuse alcohol.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: July 3, 2014 at 5:32 pm •  Published: July 5, 2014

Genetics, brain function and other factors hold promise of helping researchers predict which teenagers will become binge drinkers and abuse alcohol. A study just out in the journal Nature suggests scientists can teach a computer to make such a prediction with close to 70 percent accuracy.

But it's not a slam-dunk. The researchers note that "a comprehensive account of alcohol misuse must accommodate individual must accommodate individual differences in biology, psychology and environment and must disentangle cause and effect."

"It's sort of a deep mystery — why do some people become addicted and others don't," Hugh Garavan, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, who was the study's senior author, told Maanvi Singh of NPR for the Shots blog.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called underage drinking a "major public health problem," noting alcohol is more likely to be abused than illicit drugs or tobacco. CDC reports more than 4,300 deaths a year related to the underage consumption of alcohol. It said that those ages 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in America — 90 percent of it while binge drinking. Nearly 200,000 emergency-room visits by minors in 2010 were alcohol-related.

The nonprofit reports that the average age for boys to try alcohol is 11; for girls, it's age 13. CDC says underage drinking can contribute to a host of problems, from unplanned sexual activity to greater likelihood of vehicle accidents, injuries, health problems, drug abuse and more.

When the researchers examined a bunch of factors — including brain structure, personality and learning differences, environmental factors, life experience and genetics — their findings identified "life experiences, neurobiological differences and personality as important antecedents of binge drinking," the study abstract said.

Ultimately, figuring out what can lead to binge drinking and alcohol abuse could make prevention possible, they said.

The researchers based their findings on brain scans of 700 14-year-olds from different European countries, combing the scans with information on the youths' personalities, life experiences and genetics. In 2012, they used their findings to identify what they called "brain networks that predisposed some teens to higher risk behaviors like experimentation with drugs and alcohol."

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