Could a brain scan save teenagers from a "wasted youth" of drug use and abuse? This ensemble of neuroscientists and psychologists think it's possible.
The international team of researchers believe they will be able to effectively predict an adolescent’s drug use problems before it even starts, all by simply looking at MRI scans of their brain activity. Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
The researchers' previous work studied 1,000 14-year-olds to see if impulsiveness and other “novelty seeking” personality traits were associated with future use of recreational drugs. They asked them to complete behavioral tests that looked for these traits and made predictions of whether they would go on to take drugs based on certain personality traits. Two years later, they caught up with them to see if they had taken drugs. The study argued they could accurately predict when two-thirds of the 14-year-olds would go on to abuse drugs within those two years.
In the new study, they asked 144 adolescents in Europe to complete questionnaires and behavioral tests to see how impulsive, open to new experiences, and “novelty seeking” they were. The neuroscientists wanted to see how this lined up with imaging of their brain activity while processing rewards, whether it be the high of winning or the high of a drug.
The participants were placed under an MRI scanner while they were made to play a “Monetary Incentive Delay Task.” This test shows players how many points they stand to win during the round. This makes the players start to anticipate future rewards and, for most people, this makes the brain’s reward centers start to spark up with activity.
Curiously, the teenagers who use drugs had a decreased amount of activity in these reward centers when anticipating a reward. The study authors suggest this could mean that either the drugs suppress their brain activity or less brain activity in the reward center leads them to take drugs.
In theory, this means you could look for activity in these reward centers and predict whether an adolescent is at risk of taking drugs in the following few years.
However, that is indeed in theory. The link between “novelty seeking” behavior and future drug-use is by no means rock solid and is likely to be caused by a cocktail of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. It also raises many questions of whether it’s a case of just correlation or causation – a common theme among studies on drug use and social behavior. Nevertheless, the researchers are optimistic about their findings so far.
“This is just a first step toward something more useful," Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, explained in a statement. "Ultimately the goal – and maybe this is pie in the sky – is to do clinical diagnosis on individual patients."