There’s no easy way to predict which teenager will become a problem drug user. While certain personality traits—impulsiveness for example—may signal danger, not every adolescent fits the description.
A new study in the journal Nature Communications suggests brain scans may be a way to tell which teen is bored, in a manner of speaking, by the promise of easy money, even when they might not realize it themselves.
Researchers sorted through an intriguing dataset covering, among other things, 144 European adolescents who scored high on a test of what’s called novelty seeking—roughly, the sorts of personality traits that might indicate someone is at risk for drug or alcohol abuse.
Novelty seeking isn’t inherently bad, says Brian Knutson, professor of psychology at Stanford University. On a good day, the urge to take a risk on something new can drive innovation.
But, on a bad day, it can lead people to drive recklessly, jump off cliffs, and ingest whatever someone hands out at a party. Psychologists know that teens who score high on tests of novelty seeking are on average a bit more likely to abuse drugs. The question was, could there be a better test, one both more precise and more individualized, that could tell whether novelty seeking might turn into something more destructive.
Researchers thought so—and suspected that a brain-scanning test called the Monetary Incentive Delay Task, or MID, could be the answer. Knutson had developed the task early in his career as a way of targeting a part of the brain now known to play a role in mentally processing rewards like money or the high of a drug.
For the test, people lie down in an MRI brain scanner to play a simple video game for points, which they can eventually convert to money. More important than the details of the game, however, is this: At the start of each round, each player gets a cue about how many points he stands to win during the round. It’s at that point that players start to anticipate future rewards. For most people, that anticipation alone is enough to kick the brain’s reward centers into gear.
This plays out differently—and a little puzzlingly—in adolescents who use drugs. Adolescents’ brains in general respond less when anticipating rewards, compared with adults’ brains. But that effect is even more pronounced when those kids use drugs, which suggests one of two things: Either drugs suppress brain activity, or the suppressed brain activity somehow leads youths to take drugs.
If it’s the latter, then Knutson’s task could predict future drug use. But no one was sure, mainly because there has been little study of brain activity in non-drug-using adolescents that was compared to eventual drug use.
Christian Büchel, a professor of medicine at Universitätsklinikum Hamburg Eppendorf and coauthor of the current study, had already collected data on around 1,000 14-year-olds as they went through Knutson’s MID task.
They had also followed up with each of them two years later to find out if they’d become problem drug users—for example, if they smoked or drank on a daily basis or ever used harder drugs like heroin. Then, the researchers focused their attention on 144 adolescents who hadn’t developed drug problems by age 14 but had scored in the top 25 percent on a test of novelty seeking.
Analyzing that data, Knutson and Büchel found they could correctly predict whether youngsters would go on to abuse drugs about two-thirds of the time based on how their brains responded to anticipating rewards—a substantial improvement over behavioral and personality measures, which correctly distinguished future drug abusers from other novelty-seeking 14-year-olds about 55 percent of the time or only a little better than chance.
“This is just a first step toward something more useful,” Knutson says. “Ultimately the goal—and maybe this is pie in the sky—is to do clinical diagnosis on individual patients” in the hope that doctors could stop drug abuse before it starts.
Source: Stanford University