Onset of alcohol use by 14 relative to 21 years of age strongly predicts elevated risk for severe alcohol use problems, with 27% versus 4% of individuals exhibiting alcohol dependence within 10 years of onset. What remains unclear is whether this early alcohol use (i) is a marker for later problems, reflected as a pre-existing developmental predisposition, (ii) causes global neural atrophy or (iii) specifically disturbs neuro-maturational processes implicated in addiction, such as executive functions or reward processing. Since our group has demonstrated that a novel intervention program targeting personality traits associated with adolescent alcohol use can prevent the uptake of drinking and binge drinking by 40 to 60%, a crucial question is whether prevention of early onset alcohol misuse will protect adolescent neurodevelopment and which domains of neurodevelopment can be protected.
A subsample of 120 youth at high risk for substance misuse and 30 low-risk youth will be recruited from the Co-Venture trial (Montreal, Canada) to take part in this 5-year follow-up neuroimaging study. The Co-Venture trial is a community-based cluster-randomised trial evaluating the effectiveness of school-based personality-targeted interventions on substance use and cognitive outcomes involving approximately 3800 Grade 7 youths. Half of the 120 high-risk participants will have received the preventative intervention program. Cognitive tasks and structural and functional neuroimaging scans will be conducted at baseline, and at 24- and 48-month follow-up. Two functional paradigms will be used: the Stop-Signal Task to measure motor inhibitory control and a modified version of the Monetary Incentive Delay Task to evaluate reward processing.
The expected results should help identify biological vulnerability factors, and quantify the consequences of early alcohol abuse as well as the benefits of early intervention using brain metrics.