Background: Adolescents with a family history of alcoholism (FHP) are at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and some studies indicate that FHP individuals show deficits in executive functioning. The ability to make adaptive decisions is one aspect of successful executive functioning that is often measured during risk-taking tasks; however, this behavior has not been examined in FHP youth. As impaired decision-making could predispose FHP youth to make poor choices related to alcohol use, the current study examined the neural substrates of risk-taking in FHP adolescents and their family history negative (FHN) peers.
Methods: Thirty-one (18 FHP, 13 FHN) youth between 13 and 15 years old were included in this study. All youth had used little to no alcohol prior to study involvement. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine the neural substrates of risk-taking during the Wheel of Fortune (WOF) decision-making task (Ernst et al., 2004) in FHP and FHN youth.
Results: FHP youth did not differ from FHN youth in risk-taking behavior, but showed less brain response during risky decision-making in right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and right cerebellar regions compared with FHN peers.
Conclusions: Despite no behavioral differences on the WOF decision-making task, FHP youth exhibited atypical neural response during risk-taking compared with FHN peers. Atypical brain activity, in regions implicated in executive functioning could lead to reduced cognitive control, which may result in risky choices regarding alcohol use. This could help explain the higher rates of AUDs seen in FHP adolescents. Further examination of risky behavior and associated brain response over the course of adolescence is necessary to characterize the vulnerabilities of FHP youth in the absence of alcohol abuse.