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Report: Brain Scan for Kids May Predict Future Drug Use

Photo Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health via Wikimedia

Neuroscientists believe they’ve discovered a way to predict if an adolescent will abuse drugs when older—by scanning the teen’s brain, gauging how “impulsive” he or she is and judging a reaction to money. 

The less responsive the teen is to money, the more likely he or she will try out drugs for a thrill, leaving health officials with a conundrum: How do you get someone in our society interested in something other than drugs or money?

As WIRED reported, researchers looked at data gleaned from the IMAGEN research project, a European effort that’s been collecting brain imaging and genetic data from teens in order to understand and treat mental health.

After looking at MRI results from 144 14-year-olds and each teen’s “novelty-seeking tendencies” (a fancy way of saying, “looking for things that aren’t boring”), researchers determined that a teen’s impulsiveness could determine whether he or she would start using drugs by the age of 16.

Scientists had teens complete a test that gauged their brain activity when offered a monetary reward. Results of that test indicated a measure of brain activity called “reward anticipation.” 

According to results of the study, published in the journal Nature, teens who were “high novelty seekers” and whose brains had less of a response to the “anticipated reward” turned out to be more likely to use drugs when slightly older.

Those drugs, for the record, were tobacco, alcohol and cannabis—the kind of drugs at least one-quarter of American teens report using. Harder drug use was much rarer, as WIRED pointed out.

The connection between diminished brain activity and thrill-seeking via drug use is a breakthrough, although researchers admit they don’t quite yet know why the drug-seekers developed the diminished thrill when confronted with money. It could be genetic, as Stanford University researcher Brian Knutson, one of the scientists who worked on the study, told WIRED. It could also be environmental. Or, he said, it could be a combination.

Well. That covers just about everything.

One problem is that the same tendencies that could lead to drug use are the ones that may also lead to things like scientific research or entrepreneurship—the very tendencies most-prized in our society. 

Novelty-seeking tendencies in adolescents may promote innovation as well as problematic impulsive behaviour, including drug abuse,” the researchers wrote.

So, in order to promote the next generation of political and business leaders rather than a crop of kids selling grilled-cheese sandwiches out on a jam band tour, designed interventions might include “more powerful but alternative rewarding activities,” Knutson told WIRED.  

But aside from the therapy, there’s also the indicator of risk—and how the discovery of the indicator of future drug use will be applied. It may not be too long before next-generation helicopter parents are having their kids’ brains scanned in addition to rifling through their rooms looking for drugs hidden in mouthwash. 

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