Teens with a family history of alcoholism respond differently during risky decision-making moments compared to other teens, according to a new study from researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University.

The study recruited 31 non-drinking young people between ages 13 and 15 from a local community — from families with a history of alcoholism (FHP) and 13 with no family history (FHN). Functional magnetic resonance imaging was then used to examine their brain responses during a Wheel of Fortune (WOF) decision-making task, which presented risky versus safe probabilities of winning different amounts of money.

Study findings were published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

“While our study found that FHP adolescents did not perform significantly differently on the WOF task compared to the FHN adolescents, we found two areas of the brain that responded differently,” said Bonnie J. Nagel, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.

Brain scans of FHP teens found weaker brain responses in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, two area important for higher-order day-to-day functioning and decision making. Nagel said weaker activation of those areas may make teens vulnerable towards risky decisions with regards to future alcohol use.

Teens with a family history of alcoholism have a 4-8 times higher risk of alcoholism compared to children without a family history.

While having a familial history of alcoholism is one of many different factors involved in future alcohol abuse, Nagel says personality and behavioral risk factors are also important to consider.

“The combination of genetic and environmental factors is very different for everyone, so some individuals may be at higher risk than others, and certainly there are genetic and environmental factors that can also protect against alcohol abuse,” she said, adding that in order to design specific prevention strategies for different high-risk populations, future research will be needed to ascertain the relative influence of these traits on alcohol abuse risk.

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