A new study conducted by Duke University has determined that stressed college students who have little interest in risks but a strong desire for reward are at far greater risk of alcohol abuse than other students.

“Imagine the push and pull of opposing drives when a mouse confronts a hunk of cheese in a trap. Too much drive for the cheese and too little fear of the trap leads to one dead mouse,” says author Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

The study was conducted by conducting brain scans of students who self-reported on their drinking habits over a 12 month period, in addition to noting any stressful events that they experience over that period as well and any difficulties that arose as a result of their drinking. These brain scans were used to monitor how the threat-reward functions of each subject functioned, and then compared against the student’s self-reports. A subset of the test group also reported their drinking habits three months after their brain scans as a way of determining how their brain chemistry may have changed as a result of problem drinking.

Hariri and his research team then discovered that those students who experienced stress-related problem drinking occured only with students who had over-reactive reward systems in the ventral striatum region and under-reactive threat response within the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for emotional reactions.

“The work further highlights a novel protective role for the amygdala, which has been historically the focus of risk for and pathophysiology of mood and anxiety disorders,” Hariri says.

The research team hopes that their findings may be used to help identify students who have this disproportionate assessment of risk and reward, and subsequently identify the risk of problem of drinking within these individuals before it becomes a problem. However, the study’s authors do mention that “an important caveat to consider when interpreting these findings is the possibility that participants drinking more alcohol may experience more stressful life events partially as a result of their increased drinking, rather than the other way around.”

“This interpretation would be consistent with a heightened drive to pursue immediate rewards, coupled with a reduced ability to recognize and avoid threat in those individuals.”

The study may be read in full online at the Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders journal.