Scientists 'develop test for teen binge-drinking risk'

Woman passed out with empties Image copyright Thinkstock

Scientists claim to have developed a way of predicting which teenagers are likely to binge-drink.

A combination of 40 factors, including brain structure, personality and major life events, were used to produce the test.

It can predict, with 70% accuracy, which 14-year-olds are likely to binge-drink at 16.

But a simpler method would be needed to make the test practical because of the prohibitive costs of brain scans.

Studies have already looked for the differences between binge-drinking teenagers and those choosing a path of sobriety.

However, they cannot tease out what makes someone more likely to consume copious amounts of alcohol from the changes caused by the drink.

'Bunch of little things'

An international group of scientists have now conducted the largest study of its type to find a way of predicting which teenagers will go on to binge-drink.

They looked at a huge array of variables, including family history, exposure to alcohol, neuroticism, extravagance, conscientiousness and other personality traits, a suite of genes, brain volume, how the brain responds to reward and many more.

Dr Robert Whelan, of University College Dublin, told the BBC: "There is no one really big thing. It's a bunch of little things adding up to give you this prediction.

"There are three main areas: brain activity and brain structure; personality, so seeking out new things to do increases the risk, whereas conscious tends to make you less likely to binge-drink; and then life events, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, is highly predictive."

Image copyright SPL

However, he cautioned the test would have limited value in testing one individual as it was not accurate enough.

"It is very broad, but you could identify a group of people - say, take 1,000 kids and find the top 200 at a higher risk - to give them special intervention."

Dr Whelan added that it was important to identify those at risk of binge drinking because studies had shown alcohol has "neurotoxic effects which carry on into adulthood".

However, brain scans cost thousands of pounds per person. A simplified version of the test, focusing on relatively cheap personality and family history factors, is more likely to be used.

Hugh Perry, chairman of the Medical Research Council neurosciences and mental health board, said: "Addiction and substance misuse is a major medical, social and economic problem for the UK.

"The UK government spends more than £15bn annually in meeting the cost of drug-related social and economic harm."

He said further research could "lead to breakthroughs in this field and provide compelling evidence to inform public health policy and lay the groundwork for the design of interventions".

The findings will also be applied to other fields, including drug abuse and smoking.

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