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Keywords:

  • Adolescence;
  • Brain Imaging;
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging;
  • Alcohol Abuse;
  • White Matter;
  • Prefrontal Cortex

Background:  Adolescents with alcohol use disorders (AUD) have shown smaller prefrontal cortex (PFC) volumes compared with healthy controls; however, differences may have been due to comorbid disorders. This study examined PFC volumes in male and female adolescents with AUD who did not meet criteria for comorbid mood or attention disorders.

Methods:  Participants were adolescents aged 15 to 17 who met criteria for AUD (n = 14), and demographically similar healthy controls (n = 17). Exclusions included any history of a psychiatric or neurologic disorder other than AUD or conduct disorder. Magnetic resonance imaging scans occurred after at least 5 days of abstinence from alcohol or drugs. Overall PFC volumes and white matter PFC volumes were compared between groups.

Results:  After controlling for conduct disorder, gender, and intracranial volume, AUD teens demonstrated marginally smaller anterior ventral PFC volumes (p = 0.09) than controls, and significant interactions between group and gender were observed (p < 0.001 to p < 0.03). Compared with same-gender controls, females with AUD demonstrated smaller PFC volumes, while males with AUD had larger PFC volumes. The same pattern was observed for PFC white matter volumes.

Conclusions:  Consistent with adult literature, alcohol use during adolescence is associated with prefrontal volume abnormalities, including white matter differences. However, adolescents with AUD demonstrated gender-specific morphometric patterns. Thus, it is possible that gender may moderate the impact of adolescent alcohol use on prefrontal neurodevelopment, and the neurodevelopmental trajectories of heavy drinking boys and girls should be evaluated separately in longitudinal studies.