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New research finds that brain activity could be a predictor for drinking problems and risky sexual behavior

Published On: 08-17-2015 in Category: Drinking, Risk-taking, Substance Abuse, Teens


Two studies suggest that researchers might be able to predict the likelihood of young adults developing drinking problems and engage in promiscuous sexual behavior. This research is part of a continual Duke Neurogenetics Study (DNS), which started in 2010, in attempts to improve researchers’ understanding of how interactions between the brain and its environment form precarious behaviors. These risky habits can predict the development of mental health disorders such as addiction, anxiety and depression.

Ahmad Hariri, the senior author of both studies and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University said, “By knowing the biology that predicts risk, we hope to eventually change the biology — or at least meet that biology with other forces to stem the risk.”

Both studies used non-invasive MRI brain imaging to measure activity within two areas of the brain that control the threat-assessing amygdala and the reward-seeking ventral striatum.

In a sample analyzed in 2012, consisting of 200 participants, Hariri and his colleagues found that having an underactive amygdala and overactive ventral striatum are linked to problem drinking in response to stress. Hariri’s group confirmed this finding in a more recent study, which consisted of 759 college students, averaging 19 years old. Researchers also found that having the contrary relationship — an underactive ventral striatum and overactive amygdala — was associated with problem drinking in response to stress. These findings were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Hariri said that these findings demonstrate that having a drinking problem could be the result of an imbalance. If one has high activity in both areas of the brain, then problem drinking is nonexistent and the same goes for low activity. “It’s when they’re out of whack that individuals may have problems with drinking,” Hariri added.

Hariri predicts that people with high ventral striatum activity may be motivated to drink more because they are spontaneous. They have lower recognition of danger from their amygdala. On the other hand, those people with low ventral striatum activity typically have lower moods and an overactive amygdala could make them more sensitive to stress, which can drive them to drink more to cope.

In the second study, led by graduate student Elizabeth Victor, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, this same relationship between the amygdala and ventral striatum also predicts risky sexual behavior.

In this study, Victor asked a group of 70 DNS participants about how many sexual partners they had over an 11-month time span. The same pattern regarding the imbalance in activity between amygdala and the ventral striatum linked to problem drinking was also found to be associated with promiscuous sexual behavior. Those with an overactive ventral striatum and underactive amygdale — and vice versa — were associated with having a higher number of sexual partners.

Strangely enough, women who were more sexually active displayed a different pattern. This group demonstrated higher levels of activity in both the amygdala and the ventral striatum. Hariri said, “One possibility is that this amygdala signal is representing different things in men and women.”

In women, the amygdala drives general awareness, responsiveness and arousal. When these behaviors are combined with high reward activity in the ventral striatum, it could lead to higher levels of sexual activity. In men, the amygdala helps with detecting danger.

Hariri added that the “key is that these are patterns present before problems emerge.” If researchers are aware of this type of brain activity in an individual, they can foresee these problems before they happen, which can helps them in “preventing the problems altogether.”

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