Bonnie J. Nagel, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University, and colleagues recruited 31 young people ages 13-15 -- 18 with a family history of alcoholism and 13 with a negative family history of alcoholism.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain responses of the participants during a so-called Wheel of Fortune decision-making task, which presented risky versus safe probabilities of winning different amounts of money.
"While our study found adolescents with a family history of alcoholism did not perform significantly differently on the Wheel of Fortune task compared to the adolescents with a negative family history of alcoholism, we found two areas of the brain that responded differently," Nagel said in a statement.
These areas were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, both of which are important for higher-order day-to-day functioning, such as decision-making. In these brain regions, adolescents with a family history of alcoholism showed weaker brain responses during risky decision-making compared to their peers without a family history of alcoholism.
The findings, published online ahead of April print edition Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found those with a family history of alcoholism demonstrated atypical brain activity while completing the same task as those without a family history of alcoholism.
"Therefore, differences in brain activity may impact the ability of individuals family history of alcoholism to make good decisions in many contexts, and in particular may facilitate poor decision-making in regards to alcohol use," Nagel said. "Taken together with other studies on youth family history of alcoholism, these results suggest that atypical brain structure and function exist prior to any substance use, and may contribute to an increased vulnerability for alcoholism in these individuals."