Last August, Dr. Tara Chaplin was awarded a 2.5 million dollar, five year grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the brain patterns of preteens to help predict what factors will determine who is more likely to start abusing drugs and alcohol as they move into their teen years. Dr. Jim Thompson will be the Co-Principle Investigator, operating the new fMRI machine, and Dr. Tim Curby will be the statistician.
The study was piloted with a group of 75 preteens that initially sought to see if a link could be made between different factors that might cause some type of substance abuse, whether it’s family life, socio-economic factors, or other stresses. They would be put into the fMRI machine, and then asked to perform certain tasks to see how they process different emotions. Then those same students would be tested at 1, 2, and 3 year markers to see if they are using drugs or alcohol.
Initially, the study did not yield any results that differentiated across the test subjects. However, there was a breakthrough when the test was divided between girls and boys. When Dr. Chaplin started looking at it through these differences, she was able to determine a major difference between how girls’ and boys’ brains worked. She found that in girls, the region of the brain that reacted to negative emotions strongly predicted the use of drugs and alcohol, while boys seemed to react more to rewards. Essentially, the data seemed to show that especially during adolescence, boys used drugs and alcohol to feel good, while girls tended to use it for coping.
It was this breakthrough that led to the larger study, more designed to focus on these differences and what is more likely to be a future predictor of drug and alcohol use. This is also not an area where a lot of scientists are currently looking, which makes it perfect for study, particularly as the brain is still developing during this time. This is also a unique look at substance abuse as most studies tended to focus on boys, with girls previously being underrepresented when looking at how drugs and alcohol affect the brain. NIH requires all studies done with grants provided by them to look for differences between gender.
Testing will consist of urine screens, reports, and confidentially asking the subjects if they are using substances. While there is an element of self-reporting, all steps are being taken to gather as much truthful information as possible, and to protect the health of those involved.
The goal of this study is to ultimately determine the best way to help with early intervention, as well as find ways to tailor substance abuse prevention programs. There may be a benefit in developing different types of substance abuse prevention programs according to gender that focus on the different ways the brain reacts to drugs and alcohol.