Association between pubertal stage at first drink and neural reward processing in early adulthood

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Puberty is a critical time period during human development. It is characterized by high levels of risk-taking behavior, such as increased alcohol consumption, and is accompanied by various neurobiological changes. Recent studies in animals and humans have revealed that the pubertal stage at first drink (PSFD) significantly impacts drinking behavior in adulthood. Moreover, neuronal alterations of the dopaminergic reward system have been associated with alcohol abuse or addiction. This study aimed to clarify the impact of PSFD on neuronal characteristics of reward processing linked to alcohol-related problems. One hundred sixty-eight healthy young adults from a prospective study covering 25 years participated in a monetary incentive delay task measured with simultaneous EEG-fMRI. PSFD was determined according to the age at menarche or Tanner stage of pubertal development, respectively. Alcohol-related problems in early adulthood were assessed with the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT). During reward anticipation, decreased fMRI activation of the frontal cortex and increased preparatory EEG activity (contingent negative variation) occurred with pubertal compared to postpubertal first alcohol intake. Moreover, alcohol-related problems during early adulthood were increased in pubertal compared to postpubertal beginners, which was mediated by neuronal activation of the right medial frontal gyrus. At reward delivery, increased fMRI activation of the left caudate and higher feedback-related EEG negativity were detected in pubertal compared to postpubertal beginners. Together with animal findings, these results implicate PSFD as a potential modulator of psychopathology, involving altered reward anticipation. Both PSFD timing and reward processing might thus be potential targets for early prevention and intervention.

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