Evaluating Childhood Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

October 23, 2009

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have identified new predictive factors in children that may correlate highly to an increased risk for substance abuse in adolescence.

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine examines how indicators in childhood relate to the likelihood of adolescents with and without a genetic susceptibility for substance abuse developing such a problem.

Using a series of 13 predictors that are thought to influence familial risk-such as educational achievement scores, personality variables, self-esteem, and anxiety, as well as neurological variables like P300 amplitude, a brain neuroelectric potential, and postural body sway-Dr. Shirley Hill and colleagues found that increased body sway and decreased P300 amplitude correlated to an 8-fold increase in an individual's likelihood for developing a substance use disorder by young adulthood. According to the researchers, these results show that "neurobiological variables are among the most important" in evaluating one's likelihood for developing a substance abuse problem.

According to Hill, these results are important "in showing that risk markers for alcohol dependence and other substance use disorders can be identified long before individuals develop symptoms of these disorders. Better and earlier identification of those at highest risk makes it possible to develop targeted intervention/prevention efforts for these children, possibly enabling them to avoid [this] outcome."

Hill also said that their results could be helpful in the search for genes that are associated with the development of substance abuse.

Findings of the study were published in Biological Psychiatry, the editor of which, Dr. John Krystal, commented on the findings; "The P300 is a brain signal that is associated with the significance of events in our environment and may reflect an individual's ability to make optimal use of such information to guide future behavior," said Krystal. "It is both interesting and important that the long-term risk for developing alcohol dependence can be connected to this relatively basic feature of brain wiring."