Research from two Duke University studies suggests researchers may be able to predict how likely young adults are to develop problem drinking or engage in risky sexual behavior in response to stress.
The research is part of the ongoing Duke Neurogenetics Study (DNS), which began in 2010 to better understand how interactions between the brain, genome and environment shape risky behaviors that can predict mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and addiction.
“By knowing the biology that predicts risk, we hope to eventually change the biology — or at least meet that biology with other forces to stem the risk,” said the senior author of both studies, Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in a news release.
In both studies, the team used non-invasive functional MRI imaging to measure the activity of two brain areas that help shape opposing behaviors crucial for survival: the reward-seeking ventral striatum and the threat-assessing amygdala.
“We now have these two distinct profiles of risk that, in general, reflect imbalance in the function of typically complementary brain areas,” Hariri said. “If you have high activity in both areas, no problem. If you have low activity in both areas, no problem. It’s when they’re out of whack that individuals may have problems with drinking.”
Balance in the activity of the ventral striatum and the amygdala also predicts sexual behavior, according to the second study.
Hariri said that the next step to examine both risky sex and problem drinking is to add a third brain region: the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s ultimate decision-maker. This part of the brain may help the researchers predict more accurately which individuals may engage in risky behaviors.
“The key is that these are patterns present before problems emerge,” especially in response to stress, Hariri said. “If we know this about an individual, we can anticipate the problems and anticipate what the nature of those problems will be. This knowledge brings us one step closer to preventing the problems altogether.”
The research was supported by Duke University and the National Institutes of Health and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research fellowship.