Working Memory Linked to Resiliency and Adolescent Alcohol Use


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Drinking as a teenager may reduce your resiliency! Image by Tim Pearce

Are you flexible? Physically, flexibility is associated with yoga poses. Mentally,  the personality trait that allows humans to be flexible in their reactions, matching their responses to social context, is known as resiliency.

Resilient people are able to switch from “outside” to “inside” voices in elementary school, and know how to whoop it up when all ten pens fall down at the bowling alley while remaining solemn at a funeral. Some people have difficulty modulating their behavior; these people are considered less resilient.  Resiliency is tricky to measure. Memory, however, is easier to measure, and recent research suggests that memory and resiliency are related.

Resiliency and Memory

Working memory and resiliency share a neural link, according to new research by Barbara J. Weiland and her colleagues.

Performance data collected from 67 young adults, in which resiliency was measured earlier in adolescence and turned out to be related to lower alcohol use later in adolescence, as well as a better working memory, support these findings.

Functional magnetic resonance response (fMRI) was used to measure the response time between seeing a number on a computer screen and choosing the proper response while new numbers were flashed on the screen.

Participants reporting less alcohol use also were quicker to identify the placement of the numbers.

The direction of the causal link, however, is unclear. Weiland states, “(p)ossibly, those who engage in early use of substances have cognitive changes that lead to altered working memory and reduced resiliency, a trait that is highly related to executive functioning. Alternatively, those who are most resilient when entering adolescence may resist the use of substances most efficiently.”

Working Memory, Resiliency, and Youth: Longitudinal Research Needed

In order to tease out the causal link, i.e. if better working memory causes resiliency or if resiliency precedes better working memory and less substance use, longitudinal research that measures behavior in high-risk youth over time, prior to substance use, is needed. Weiland reports, in an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, that, “our group is performing longitudinal research specifically with the goal to look at early behavioral and neurobiological markers that might be predictive of later substance use as well as those that may be protective.”

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