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The brain in social context: A systematic review of substance use and social processing from adolescence to young adulthood


Substance use escalates between adolescence and young adulthood, and most experimentation occurs among peers. To understand underlying mechanisms, research has focused on neural response during relevant psychological processes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research provides a wealth of information about brain activity when processing monetary rewards; however, most studies have used tasks devoid of social stimuli. Given that adolescent neurodevelopment is sculpted by the push-and-pull of peers and emotions, identifying neural substrates is important for intervention. We systematically reviewed 28 fMRI studies examining substance use and neural responses to stimuli including social reward, emotional faces, social influence, and social stressors. We found substance use was positively associated with social-reward activity (e.g., in the ventral striatum), and negatively with social-stress activity (e.g., in the amygdala). For emotion, findings were mixed with more use linked to heightened response (e.g., in amygdala), but also with decreased response (e.g., in insula). For social influence, evidence supported both positive (e.g., cannabis and nucleus accumbens during conformity) and negative (e.g., polydrug and ventromedial PFC during peers' choices) relations between activity and use. Based on the literature, we offer recommendations for future research on the neural processing of social information to better identify risks for substance use.

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