The transition to college is often associated with an escalation in alcohol consumption, with college students typically surpassing similarly aged non-students in overall alcohol use and incidence of heavy episodic alcohol use. Negative consequences of college alcohol use include significant numbers of accidental deaths, injuries, assaults, and sexual assaults. Impaired decision-making, sensation seeking, emotional dysregulation and impulsivity, traits subserved in part by the prefrontal cortex and prefrontal-limbic circuitry, also are associated with heavy episodic alcohol consumption, which may contribute to increased rates of alcohol abuse and dependence reported in college-aged cohorts. Neuroimaging research has demonstrated that developmental brain changes do not begin to plateau until the early twenties, with the majority of the fine-tuning occurring in frontal and association cortices, and in cortical-subcortical pathways critical to emotional and cognitive regulation. Such brain changes permit notable improvements in decision-making while decreasing impulsive behavior. Impulsivity, however, is a broad construct that has multiple sub-components, some of which are more relevant to specific aspects of alcohol drinking in college populations. Data collected using the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale demonstrate that emotion-related aspects of impulsivity are strongly associated with alcohol-related problems and dependence. Thus, this project aims to employ the UPPS-P in conjunction with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to identify neural correlates of emotion-related impulsivity that may serve as biomarkers for problem drinking in first year college students. Functional MRI data will be collected during performance of an Emotional Go-NoGo task, which probes impulse control in the presence of distracting emotional information. Proton MRS data will be acquired in the same session from frontal lobe brain regions (anterior cingulate cortex and dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex) to measure levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA), along with other metabolites reported to be altered in alcohol dependent patients. Following the initial study session, self- report assessments of general functioning, psychological well-being, emotion-related aspects of impulsivity, and alcohol use will be collected via online surveys at one-year and two-year follow-ups, to assess the predictive value of functional and neurochemical baseline levels in determining later drinking behavior. The results of this study will have significant relevance to public health by identifying cognitive and neurobiological correlates that may serve as risk markers for escalations in hazardous drinking. Overall, the proposed training and research project will provide exceptional training opportunities in the theory and implementation of multiple neuroimaging techniques and longitudinal data analysis, as well as pave the way towards an independent research career and R01 proposal to determine if data collected from the present study can inform future prevention and treatment strategies for reducing maladaptive alcohol consumption in college students.
Increased heavy episodic alcohol use among college students has been linked to impaired decision-making, sensation seeking, and impulsivity, traits subserved in part by the prefrontal cortex. The proposed study integrates functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) with behavioral and self-report measures of emotion-related impulsivity in order to construct a predictive profile that can help identify individuals at an elevated risk for alcohol-related adverse outcomes, including health problems, accidents, academic problems and alcohol dependence. Neuroimaging and cognitive testing will be followed up at one and two-year time points via online surveys assessing general functioning, psychological well-being, emotion-related impulsivity and alcohol use, in order to identify cognitive and neurobiological predictors of alcohol-related problems during the early college years, which will allow for targeted interventions.