Neural and psychological characteristics of college students with alcoholic parents differ depending on current alcohol use

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Abstract

A significant proportion of college students are adult children of an alcoholic parent (ACoA), which can confer greater risk of depression, poor self-esteem, alcohol and drug problems, and greater levels of college attrition. However, some ACoA are resilient to these negative outcomes. The goal of this study was to better understand the psychobiological factors that distinguish resilient and vulnerable college-aged ACoAs. To do so, scholastic performance and psychological health were measured in ACoA college students not engaged in hazardous alcohol use (resilient) and those currently engaged in hazardous alcohol use (vulnerable). Neural activity (as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging) in response to performing working memory and emotion-based tasks were assessed. Furthermore, the frequency of polymorphisms in candidate genes associated with substance use, risk taking and stress reactivity were compared between the two ACoA groups. College ACoAs currently engaged in hazardous alcohol use reported more anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms, and increased risky nicotine and marijuana use as compared to ACoAs resistant to problem alcohol use. ACoA college students with current problem alcohol showed greater activity of the middle frontal gyrus and reduced activation of the posterior cingulate in response to visual working memory and emotional processing tasks, which may relate to increased anxiety and problem alcohol and drug behaviors. Furthermore, polymorphisms of cholinergic receptor and the serotonin transporter genes also appear to contribute a role in problem alcohol use in ACoAs. Overall, findings point to several important psychobiological variables that distinguish ACoAs based on their current alcohol use that may be used in the future for early intervention.

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