Scientists have identified the two biggest things that seem to influence risk for stress-related alcohol abuse among college students: Having a lack of fear of negative consequences, and a strong need for reward.
"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," study researcher Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said in a statement.
The findings, published in the journal Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders, are based on a study of 200 young adults who participated in the Duke Neurogenetics Study.
Study participants underwent fMRI brain scans so that researchers could see how the brain circuits that process reward and threat functioned. The participants also self-reported any stressful events, as well as alcohol use as a result of these stressful events, that may have taken place during the last year.
Scientists found that students who reported stress-related alcohol abuse also had high reactivity in the amygdala brain region's threat circuitry and the ventral striatum brain region's reward circuitry.
The researchers said this finding could help to identify people who could face a higher risk of stress-related alcohol abuse, though they did note that the study didn't distinguish between people whose drinking led to the stress, or people whose stress led to the drinking.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is most common on younger adults (late teens, and 20s), with 21 percent of early adults having diagnosable alcohol abuse/dependence.