A family-based prevention program designed to help adolescents avoid
substance use and other risky behavior proved especially effective for
a group of young teens with a genetic risk factor contributing toward
such behavior, according to a new study by researchers at the
University of Georgia. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),
components of the National Institutes of Health, supported the study,
which appears in the May/June issue of Child Development.
For two-and-a-half years, investigators monitored the
progress of 11-year-olds enrolled in a family-centered prevention
program called Strong African American Families (SAAF), and a
comparison group. A DNA analysis showed some youths carried the short
allele form of 5-HTTLPR. This fairly common genetic variation, found in
over 40 percent of people, is known from previous studies to be
associated with impulsivity, low self-control, binge drinking, and
The researchers found that adolescents with this gene who
participated in the SAAF program were no more likely than their
counterparts without the gene to have engaged in drinking, marijuana
smoking, and sexual activity. Moreover, youths with the gene in the
comparison group were twice as likely to have engaged in these risky
behaviors as those in the prevention group.
"The findings underscore that ‘nurture’ can influence ‘nature’
during adolescence, a pivotal time when delaying the start of alcohol
consumption and other risky behaviors can have a significant impact on
healthy child development," says NIAAA Acting Director Kenneth R.
Warren, Ph.D. "This study is one of the first to combine prevention
research with a gene-environment study design."
"This study is an excellent example of how we can target prevention interventions based on a person’s
genetic make-up to reduce their substance abuse risk," says NIDA Director Nora
The research team recruited 641 families in rural Georgia with
similar demographic characteristics. They were divided randomly into
two groups: 291 were assigned to a control group that received three
mailings of health-related information, and 350 were assigned to the
SAAF program, in which parents and children participated in seven
consecutive weeks of two-hour prevention sessions. The parents learned
about effective caregiving strategies that included monitoring,
emotional support, family communication, and handling racial
discrimination, which can contribute to substance abuse. The children
were taught how to set and attain positive goals, deal with peer
pressure and stress, and avoid risky activities.
Researchers conducted home visits with the families when the
children were ages 11, 12, and 14 and collected data on parent-child
relationships, peer relationships, youth goals for the future, and
youth risk behavior. Two years later, the scientists collected DNA from
saliva samples provided by the adolescents to determine whether they
carried the short allele of 5HTTLPR. The results confirmed that the
adolescents carrying this risk gene who were in the control group
engaged in risky behaviors at a rate double that of their peers in the
"We found that the prevention program proved especially beneficial
for children with a genetic risk factor tied to risky behaviors," says
the lead author, Gene H. Brody, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Director
of the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia. "The
results emphasize the important role of parents, caregivers, and
family-centered prevention programs in promoting healthy development
during adolescence, especially when children have a biological makeup
that may pose a challenge."
Dr. Brody also notes that much of the protective influence of SAAF
results from enhancing parenting practices. "The ability of effective
parenting to override genetic predispositions to risky behaviors
demonstrates the capacity of family-centered prevention programs to
benefit developing adolescents," he says. The study team, which
included researchers from the University of Iowa and Vanderbilt
University, concluded that the results validate the use of randomized,
controlled prevention trials to test hypotheses about the ways in which
genes and environments interact.
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NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health, is America's
authority on alcohol research and health. The primary U.S. agency for
conducting and supporting research on the causes, consequences,
prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol
problems, NIAAA also disseminates research findings to general,
professional, and academic audiences. Additional alcohol research
information and publications are available at www.niaaa.nih.gov.