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White matter integrity in alcohol-naive youth with a family history of alcohol use disorders

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Understanding pre-existing neural vulnerabilities found in youth who are family history positive (FHP) for alcohol use disorders could help inform preventative interventions created to delay initiation age and escalation of heavy drinking. The goal of this study was to compare indices of white matter integrity using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) between FHP and family history negative (FHN) youth using a sample of 94 alcohol-naive adolescents and to examine if differences were associated with global and domain-specific cognitive functioning.


Participants were 48 FHP and 46 FHN demographically matched, healthy, substance-naive 12- to 14-year-olds (54% female) recruited from local middle schools. Participants completed a neuropsychological test battery and magnetic resonance imaging session, including DTI.


FHP youth had higher fractional anisotropy and axial diffusivity, and lower radial and mean diffusivity, than FHN youth in 19 clusters spanning projection, association and interhemispheric white matter tracts. Findings were replicated after controlling for age, gender, socio-economic status, grade and pubertal development. Groups did not differ significantly on global or domain-specific neuropsychological test scores.


FHP teens showed higher white matter integrity, but similar cognitive functioning, to FHN youth. More mature neural features could be related to more precocious behaviors, such as substance use initiation, in FHP youth. Future research exploring white matter maturation before and after substance use initiation will help elucidate the neurodevelopmental trajectories in youth at risk for substance use disorders, to inform preventive efforts and better understand the sequelae of adolescent alcohol and drug use.

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