Brain responses during delay discounting in youth at high-risk for substance use disorders

Tarah J Butcher, Mario Dzemidzic, Jaroslaw Harezlak, Leslie A Hulvershorn, Brandon G Oberlin,
Brain responses during delay discounting in youth at high-risk for substance use disorders,
NeuroImage: Clinical, 2021,102772,
ISSN 2213-1582,


High-risk preadolescent youth show altered brain activity during delay discounting.

Activity in the posterior insula was related to emotionality and cognitive control.

Results may reveal early-detection brain biomarkers for later substance use.


Offspring of parents with substance use disorders (SUD) discount future rewards at a steeper rate on the monetary delay discounting task (DD) than typically developing youth. However, brain activation during DD has yet to be studied in drug naïve youth with a family history (FH) of SUD.

Here, we investigate brain activation differences in high-risk youth during DD. We recruited substance naïve youth, aged 11-12, into three groups to compare brain activation during DD: (1) High-risk youth (n=35) with a FH of SUD and externalizing psychiatric disorders, (2) psychiatric controls (n=25) who had no FH of SUD, but with equivalent externalizing psychiatric disorders as high-risk youth, and (3) a healthy control group (n=24) with no FH of SUD and minimal psychopathology. A whole-brain voxel wise analysis of the [Delay>Baseline], [Immediate>Baseline], and [Control>Baseline] contrasts identified functional regions of interest, from which extracted parameter estimates were tested for significant group differences.

Relative to control youth, high-risk youth showed stronger activation in the left posterior insula and thalamus when making delayed choices, and stronger activation of the parahippocampal gyrus when making both delayed and control choices (ps < 0.05). Activation in the left posterior insula negatively correlated with both subscales of the Emotion Regulation Checklist, and positively correlated with the Stroop interference effect (ps < 0.05).

Our findings suggest possible heritable SUD risk neural markers that distinguish drug naïve high-risk youth from psychiatric and healthy controls.

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