MRIs of young adults produce images of the biological activity behind risk-taking.
Two new imaging studies have found that by measuring the activity of two brain areas, you may someday know how likely it is that your teenagers will have certain problems.
In this case the researchers identified brain activity that predicts risk behavior, such as problem drinking or promiscuity. If you have children in the age range of the study – participants averaged age 19 – you would certainly want to know.
The research is part of the Duke University Neurogenetics Study (DNS), which was undertaken in 2010 to better understand how interactions between the brain, genome, and environment create risky behaviors. Those in turn can predict mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
“By knowing the biology that predicts risk, we hope to eventually change the biology – or at least meet that biology with other forces to stem the risk,” said the senior investigator in both studies, Ahmad Hariri, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
Hariri added that the studies have provided two distinct profiles of risk that reflect an imbalance in the function of typically complementary brain areas, the ventrail striatum (which seeks reward) and the amygdala (which assesses threat).
“If you have high activity in both areas, no problem,” he says. If you have low activity in both areas, no problem. It’s when they’re out of whack that individuals may have problems with drinking (and sexual behavior.)”
The lead researcher in the alcohol study, Yuliva Nikolova, PhD., says that “of course the ultimate goal of our work is to use it clinically and both studies are a step in the right direction.”
Nikolova notes that many diagnoses of neurological disorders are currently based on overt symptoms and clinical recognition. “Many are pretty far removed from neurology,” she says. “Many people in a completely different diagnostic category (than others) may be treated the same way. So, we’re trying to create distinct categories of risk.”
If you’re a parent, you can look at these studies as a sign of a big push toward more diagnostic precision for various neurological disorders that could affect your teenagers or young adults.
How far off practical application is would be speculation, but Nikolova says cancer diagnostics and their improved specificity in recent years are an example of how quickly research can be translated to the clinical realm today.
In fact, the National Institutes of Health has pumped millions of dollars into translational research, setting up more than 60 university-based centers across the U.S. to speed up that pipeline.
Nikolova adds that the studies contribute to the ever-mounting evidence that too much stress is bad for human beings, and that people vulnerable to certain neurological disorders will be negatively affected by stress more than others.
The researchers may find, for example, that the underlying cause of binge drinking in this young adult age group is related to brain activity that, as Hariri puts it, is “out of whack.”
“Stress is not always controllable,” she says, “but perhaps it’s more controllable than trying to change the biology at this time.”
For you, the studies also bring the spotlight back to basics, such as being aware of troubled behavior patterns in your kids, Nikolova says. If something seems out of whack to you, the next step would be intervention that would teach coping skills before the pattern spirals into a disorder that would be much more difficult to control.
April 02, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA