Teenage girls who have first- and second-degree relatives with alcohol problems are at an increased risk for having altered brain structures that make them susceptible to problematic alcohol use even if they don’t currently drink, a new study finds. Doctors, researchers and public health officials are well aware that people with alcoholism in their family history have increased chances of developing alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or non-addicted alcohol abuse). In a study published in January 2015 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from two U.S. universities sought to determine if teenage girls and boys with a family history of alcoholism have altered brain structures that could make them more susceptible to the future development of alcohol problems.
Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcoholism is the widely used popular term for alcohol dependence, a condition characterized by a physical reliance on ongoing alcohol intake, as well as by changes in brain function and daily behavior that support and prioritize a pattern of typically excessive alcohol consumption. Until 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) viewed alcohol dependence as a distinct condition that differed fundamentally from dysfunctional, non-addicted alcohol abuse. However, real-world facts show that the issues of alcoholism and alcohol abuse can overlap to a substantial degree in any given drinker. In some cases, it’s a fairly arbitrary call to decide to diagnose a drinker with one of these conditions rather than the other. In 2013, the APA created and defined the alcohol use disorder diagnosis. This diagnosis allows doctors to identify and simultaneously account for all of a person’s alcohol-related symptoms, whether those symptoms indicate the presence of alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse or a mixed state of dependence and non-dependent abuse. People heavily affected by alcohol use disorder have six to 11 specific symptoms of alcoholism/alcohol abuse, while moderately affected individuals have four or five symptoms. The least affected individuals have two or three symptoms of alcoholism/alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and Family History
Roughly half of any person’s chances of developing diagnosable alcohol problems comes from his or her inherited mixture of a number of genes. Since genes are passed down through family bloodlines, a family history of alcoholism is largely genetically based. However, non-genetic family influences can also substantially increase the odds that individuals with certain personal backgrounds will eventually receive an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. These influences include such things as serious instability within a child’s family unit, depression or other mental health issues in an alcohol-consuming parent, the presence of substance problems in both parents within a family unit and a parent’s severe, non-genetically inherited difficulties with alcohol dependence or abuse. It’s important to note that not all children with a family history of alcohol problems will go on to develop the same types of problems as adults.
Teenage Girls’ Brain Structures
In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from Oregon Health & Science University and Pacific University Oregon used advanced imaging technology to examine the brain structures of 140 children between the ages of 12 and 16 with a family history of alcoholism. Some of these adolescents had personal experience with drinking, but most did not. The researchers wanted to know if there is a connection between an alcoholism family history and alterations in the parts of teenagers’ brains that play a role in fostering the future onset of diagnosable alcohol problems. In addition to looking for specific alterations inside the brain, they recorded the number of each participant’s first-degree relatives (parents, siblings) and second-degree relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents) with a history of alcohol use disorder. After cross-referencing the results of the brain imaging scans with each participant’s family history of alcoholism, the researchers found that there is a connection between having first- and second-degree relatives with diagnosable alcohol problems and any given teenager’s chances of having altered brain structures that could make him or her more susceptible to future problematic alcohol use. This connection exists for both teenage girls and teenage boys; however, the researchers concluded that it reaches a level of statistical significance only in teenage girls. They also concluded that the strength of the connection increases along with the number of first- and second-degree relatives affected by alcohol use disorder. The study’s authors note that they did not try to differentiate a genetic family history of alcoholism from a non-genetic family history of alcoholism. They also note the need for future research in order to determine if having large numbers of first- and second-degree relatives with alcohol problems is actually associated with teenage girls’ development of similar problems in adulthood.