Some might consider it a given that a child who grows up around adults who abuse alcohol will eventually go on to abuse it themselves. One in five kids grows up with an alcohol relative, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. These kids are four times more likely to become alcoholics. However, a new study suggests it’s not entirely because of the environment they’re in, but instead because their brains are predisposed to improper development.

Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center found that kids with a family history of alcohol or other drug use disorders — shorted to FH+ — were more likely to exhibit impairments in the forebrain area. The forebrain is the big, spongy, outer area of the brain, and comprises a number of brain regions, including the cerebral cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia. These regions are critical to a number of functions, including decision-making, impulse control, memory, hunger, motor response, and attachment behavior.  

“Not surprisingly, dysfunctions in the forebrain are involved in many psychiatric disorders, including alcohol and other drug use disorders,” said co-author of the study Ashley Acheson, an assistant professor at the university, in a press release. She said that these deficits in kids and young adults may “contribute to their increased risk for developing alcohol and other drug problems.”

Essentially, what they found was that a person who’s spent their whole life surrounded by alcoholics and drug abusers are more likely to pick up a six pack at the store upon laying eyes on it. Surely, it’s their decision to do so, but their thought process is impaired by a lack of self-control. Their impulsivity is just too strong.

The researchers tested participants’ impulsivity with a computer game, called a Go/No Go task, which prompted them to push a button only when they saw certain cues appear on the screen. The game’s speed forced participants, of whom 72 had a family history of substance abuse and 32 didn’t, to always be at attention, ready to push the button when a “go” cue appeared, and to avoid pushing it when a “no go” cue appeared. If they pushed it on a “no go” cue, it was considered a loss of inhibition, and thus a sign of impulsivity. Along with alternating between “go” and “no go,” the kids also underwent an entirely “go” exercise.

Acheson and her team found that kids with a family history of substance abuse had more active forebrains than those without a family history not only when it came to inhibiting a response but during the entire task. Throughout all the tasks, actually, these kids showed more activity. However, there was no consistency between the two different exercises (entirely “go” and “go/no go”), which could mean their brains didn’t have a problem with impulsivity, but with overall function — it worked harder, but less efficiently.

“The greater cognitive resources expended by the FH+ group might be related to other findings showing that persons with a family history of alcoholism have poorer functioning white-matter pathways in the brain,” said William R. Lovallo, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in the release. “These pathways are the long ones that connect up distant brain regions. It is like trying to talk on a long-distance phone call with static on the line. You need to work harder at your conversation.”

As part of a longer study, the researchers said these findings will help them see who falls into substance abuse, and which brain regions they can focus on for developing treatment. “I think we need to know what makes people misuse alcohol and drugs in the first place in order to treat addictions,” Acheson said. In 2012, an estimated 23.1 million American adults required treatment for drug or alcohol related problems.  

Source: Acheson A, Tagamets M, Rowland L, et al. Increased Forebrain Activations in Youths with Family Histories of Alcohol and Other Substance Use Disorders Performing a Go/NoGo Task. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2014.