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Difference in key brain regions leads to risk of addiction in young people, says study
Mar 26 2019

Difference in key brain regions leads to risk of addiction in young people, says study

Mental Health

Teens at an increased risk of developing addiction-related disorders, have vivid differences in a key area of the brain, found a team of international researchers at the University of Cambridge. The study corroborated the fact that a person’s biological makeup played an important role in determining if they would develop any kind of addictive disorders during their teens.

During adolescence, a key phase in an individual’s developmental process, some young people display addiction associated behaviors such as impulsivity, which may prove to be risky. At such times, quick decision making is called for, unlike other times, when people can take a decision after careful consideration. Impulsivity indicates the act of responding and acting in an impulsive manner, without thinking about the consequences. While it is normal for people to act in an impulsive manner sometimes, people with substance and behavioral issues and mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), display higher levels of impulsiveness.

Lower levels of myelin indicate higher levels of impulsiveness

The team of researchers from the Psychiatry department in the Cambridge University collaborated with another team of researchers from the Aarhus University, Denmark and carried out an analysis that suggested a strong link between highly impulsive behavior in young teens and nerve cell anomalies in a key section of the brain known as the putamen. This region in the brain is associated with addiction-related disorders.

The researchers analyzed a group of 99 youngsters in the age group of 16 to 25 years and subjected them to a computer-oriented measurement of impulsive behavior. The brains of these volunteers were also scanned with the help of a sequence known to be sensitive to myelin content. Myelin plays a significant role in increasing nerve conduction in the entire human body, including the brain. It is a protein-based rich sheath that covers the nerve cell axis. Myelin is quite similar to the plastic coating that covers an electrical wire.

After the analysis, the researchers came to the conclusion that youngsters projecting higher levels of behavioral impulsiveness, displayed lower levels of myelin in the putamen. According to lead author Dr. Camilla Nord, individuals displaying increased levels of impulsiveness were more susceptible to mental health disorders, eating disorders, ADHD, substance abuse, and behavioral disorders.

Myelin the key puzzle piece in establishing brain signatures

While the majority of mental health symptoms are not explicitly connected to specific mental health disorders, this particular research solves a significant piece of the puzzle in creating brain signatures that are common across several mental health issues, instead of any particular disorder.

The putamen region of the brain is primarily responsible for emitting dopamine signals somewhere else in the brain and drives the level of impulsivity in individuals. Senior study author, Dr. Valerie Voon stated that when the myelin is in a decreased state, it indicates that there are small microstructural changes in this particular section of the brain, impacting its function, and leading to increased impulsiveness in people. Another study author, Dr. Seung-Goo Kim stated that the degree of myelination alters neural effectiveness and speed in the brain.

Research set to predict risk of addiction

Even though it is not feasible to accurately conclude if decreased levels of myelin in the brain is responsible for the impulsive behavior in young teens, the fact that all the study participants did not have any previous history of mental health disorders or addiction, suggested the connection between increased impulsivity and decreased myelination. Further, previous research studies had not been able to establish this connection.

According to the researchers, this research will pave the way for predicting a young teen’s risk of developing addiction issues. However, more testing and further research would have to be conducted for it to be foolproof. This research, funded by the Danish Ministry for Social Affairs and the Interior, the Aarhus University Research Foundation, and the U.K. Medical Research Council, also received support from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Center.

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