The Genetic Impact of Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder linked to reduced brain activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum in offspring

(RxWiki News) Children of alcoholics may need to watch their own drinking, a new study suggests.

Adolescents possessing a family history of alcohol use disorder demonstrated differences in brain function from those without alcoholism in their past.

"Be mindful of addictive behavior."

According to the corresponding author on the study, Bonnie Nagel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), although there were no behavioral differences found during testing, those with a family history of alcoholism exhibited "atypical neural response during risk-taking compared with family history negative peers." 

The doctor worked with Anita Cservenka, a fourth year graduate school student, on the study. The pair recruited thirty-one adolescents between the ages of thirteen and fifteen to take part in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brain to determine their risk-reward behavior.

The images were taken while the children took part in a Wheel-of-Fortune-style decision-making task that weighted “risky” versus “safe” bets. Although behavior did not differ amongst groups, children with a history of alcoholism showed less brain response during risky decision-making in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as well as the right cerebellum.

“In these brain regions, family history positive adolescents showed weaker brain responses during risky decision-making compared to their family history negative peers,” Dr. Nagel explains. “We believe that weaker activation of these brain areas, known to be important for optimal decision-making, may confer vulnerability towards risky decisions with regards to future alcohol use in adolescents already at risk for alcoholism.”

Megan Herting, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral Neuroscience at OHSU, understands that these deficits affect more than just alcohol usage. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regulates thought and action patterns and deficits may cause issues with relationships, memory, mood, and decision-making. The cerebellum, on the other hand, plays an important role in coordination, balance, and equilibrium, and reduced function in the cerebellum may cause issues with motor function.

“Differences in brain activity may impact the ability of family history positive individuals to make good decisions in many contexts, and in particular may facilitate poor decision-making in regards to alcohol use," Herting notes. "Taken together with other studies on family history positive youth, these results suggest that atypical brain structure and function exist prior to any substance use, and may contribute to an increased vulnerability for alcoholism in these individuals."

Preventative therapies exist for those worried about the implications of cognitive deficits. dailyRx contributing expert and personal therapist LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, explains the benefits of therapies focused on living in the moment in order to make beneficial decisions.

“Mindfulness, the ability to attend to the present moment, helps limit our focus on the past or future which can otherwise result in emotional distress,” LuAnn tells dailyRx. “In mindfulness we learn to 'be with' what we are experiencing rather than judging it or trying to escape.”

Review Date: 
January 18, 2012