8 July 2014

Who Will Binge-Drink at Age 16?

An international collaboration of scientists leading the world’s largest longitudinal adolescent brain imaging study to date has learned that it is possible to predict teenage binge-drinking. The research, published in Natureopens in new window, found that aspects of life experience, personality and brain structure are strong determinants of future alcohol misuse. New simplified versions of the tests are being developed so that children who are at risk of alcohol misuse can be identified and given help.

This is the first comprehensive analysis of potential influences involved in teenage binge drinking. The researchers used a model which incorporated factors known or believed to be relevant for the development of adolescent substance abuse. These include personality, history/life events, brain physiology and structure, cognitive ability, genetics and demographics – in total 40 different variables were investigated.

Surprisingly, when developing their model to predict teenage binge-drinking, the scientists found that even 1-2 instances of alcohol consumption by age 14 was sufficient to predict if the teenagers would binge-drink at age 16*. Previous research has suggested that the odds of adult alcohol dependence can be reduced by 10% for each year that alcohol consumption is delayed in adolescence.

The data used in this study was collected from the European IMAGEN opens in new window cohort, funded by the European Commission, which aims to learn more about biological and environmental factors that might have an influence on the mental health of teenagers. IMAGEN recruited over 2,000 teenagers from England, Ireland, France and Germany at age 14 years. Follow-up work at age 16, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), has shown that it is possible to predict future alcohol misuse two years later, and the scientists wish to continue this work by re-assessing the participants at a later age. The factors assessed in this study will also be applied to predict other types of risk-taking behaviours, such as drug-taking and smoking.

Early onset of teenage binge drinking and progression to alcohol misuse has previously been shown to be genetically influenced and has been consistently shown to be associated with later risk for substance use disorders. However, it is important to understand whether environmental factors can modify the risk imposed by our genes. In this study, negative life experiences were shown to be an important influence on binge drinking behaviour at the age of 14.

Lead author Dr Robert Whelan, formerly a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the University of Vermont opens in new window and current lecturer at University College Dublin opens in new window, says:

“Our goal was to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol. This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

 Gunter Schumann, Professor of Biological Psychiatry at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College Londonopens in new window, and Coordinator of the IMAGEN project, said:

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behaviour which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models. This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse. We now propose to extend analysis of the IMAGEN data in order to investigate the development of substance use patterns in the context of moderating environmental factors, such as exposure to nicotine or drugs as well as psychosocial stress.”

 Hugh Perry, chair of the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, says:

“Addiction and substance misuse is a major medical, social and economic problem for the UK. The UK Government spends more than £15 billion annually in meeting the cost of drug-related social and economic harm. The MRC is supporting research that aims to identify the medical harms caused by alcohol consumption and linking these to the various drinking behaviours prevalent in the UK. We believe that establishing such links will lead to breakthroughs in this field and provide compelling evidence to inform public health policy and lay the groundwork for the design of interventions.”

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Further information

  • * The primary questions of interest were regarding lifetime alcohol use - on how many occasions (if any) have you had any alcoholic beverage to drink? – and lifetime
  • drunken episodes – on how many occasions (if any) have you been drunk from
  • drinking alcoholic beverages?

Alcohol misuse in the UK

The UK is consistently ranked amongst the top 5 countries for prevalence of adolescent substance use. Excessive drinking styles, such as binge drinking, become increasingly widespread and account for approximately 40% (men) and 22% (women) of all drinking sessions.

Contact us

For a copy of the journal paper, or to interview any of the authors, please contact Claire Hastings at the MRC press office on press.office@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk or +44(0)20 7395 2345

Research article

Robert Whelan, Richard Watts, Catherine A. Orr, Robert Althoff, Eric Artiges, Tobias Banaschewski, Gareth J. Barker, Arun L.W. Bokde, Christian Büchel, Fabiana M. Carvalho, Patricia J. Conrod, Herta Flor, Mira Fauth-Bühler1, Vincent Frouin, Juergen Gallinat, Gabriela Gan, Penny Gowland, Andreas Heinz, Bernd Ittermann, Claire

Lawrence, Karl Mann, Jean-Luc Martinot, Frauke Nees, Nick Ortiz, Marie-Laure Paillère-Martinot, Tomas Paus, Zdenka Pausova, Marcella Rietschel, Trevor W. Robbins, Michael N. Smolka, Andreas Ströhle, Gunter Schumann, Hugh Garavan, & the IMAGEN Consortium. Neuropsychosocial profiles of current and future adolescent alcohol misusers. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature13402


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Mental Health, Neurological
  • Strategic objectives: Mental health and wellbeing
  • Locations: Other
  • Type: Press release