We Now Know Which Teens Will Binge Drink
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We Now Know Which Teens Will Binge Drink


The American alcohol and drug treatment paradigm has always been reactive rather than proactive (though some forward-thinkers have fought to change that). Mostly, that’s been due to a lack of understanding about how and why addictive behaviors develop, and how to intervene before they dominate a person’s life.

Fortunately, European researchers have recently launched a groundbreaking study of unprecedented scale and depth that may prove useful in answering these queries. The recent research published in Nature had a deceptively simple question: Who will be binge drinking at 16?

No Confirmed Suspects Yet

The answer, it seems, is staggeringly complex. The study was the result of data collected by the IMAGEN project, a research group based out of King’s College London, and it featured answers from more than 2,000 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 in England, Ireland, France and Germany. It was funded with the help of the European Union, as well as from the governments of each respective country. The idea was to profile subjects at the age of 14 while considering 40 different variables (such as cognitive ability, life events and genetics), with follow-up research at the age of 16 to monitor how their drinking habits had progressed.

By looking for commonalities and differences, the researchers hoped to diagnose which influences would likely lead to binge drinking; if they can continue to get funding, IMAGEN intends to continue collecting data from the same subjects to extrapolate their findings.

Breaking New Ground on Kid Boozing

The study, which was spearheaded by professor Gunter Schumann of King’s College in London, is the first comprehensive study of its kind to examine teen binge drinking. “We aimed to develop a gold standard model for predicting teenage behavior,” Schumann said recently in the press. “This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse.” Lead author Dr. Robert Whelan added that an additional goal was to “better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics” in alcohol abuse.

The major findings of their report read more or less like confirmations of what science has suspected for years. Still, one key finding was that early exposure to alcohol—even just once or twice—was a sufficient enough variable to predict whether teens would be problem drinkers by age 16. Bigger still is the fact that the same team of scientists successfully identified a binge-drinking gene in the brains of teenage boys that was of course another big predictor. Finally, from all the data collected, predictions of whether teens would be problem drinkers or not were already said to be 70% accurate.

Claiming Uncharted Territory

What makes studies like these so important is the same thing that makes them hard to summarize. Most of the science that enters public knowledge has to have a simplistic premise—smoking hurts lungs, vegetables are good for you and so on. Unfortunately, addiction is a mountain of a disease with many facets, some of them virtually unmappable. What Schuhmann’s team has taken on here is an ambitious data-collection project with no clear-cut conclusions but potentially huge implications for the future of addiction research. Hopefully, their work will lead to better models that can cut through all the statistical noise.

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About Author

Ryan Aliapoulios is a freelance writer and editor. He also hosts Dad Bops, the world's first intersectional vegan comedy podcast about dad music, available on iTunes and Soundcloud.