Abnormal brain functioning during verbal working memory (VWM) tasks has been shown in individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Since adolescents with a familial history of alcoholism (FHP) are at high risk for developing an AUD, it is important to consider whether atypical brain activity during VWM may help to explain FHP vulnerability toward developing alcoholism.
To that end, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined brain response during a VWM 2-back task in 19 FHP adolescents and 16 age and gender-matched family history negative (FHN) controls.
Despite no group differences in task accuracy, FHP youth had significantly slower average reaction time when making correct responses during the 2-back condition than FHN youth. In contrast to a vigilance control condition, while covarying for reaction time, FHP adolescents showed less activation during VWM than FHN youth in multiple areas of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – a brain region crucial to intact working memory skills.
These results suggest that even prior to heavy alcohol use, FHP adolescents show atypical executive brain functioning during VWM, and that these differences are independent of slower working memory reaction time in FHP youth. Given the importance of working memory in numerous areas of day-to-day functioning, such as adaptive decision-making, these abnormalities may contribute to FHP youth vulnerability toward developing AUDs.
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