The primary aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that adolescent binge drinkers, but not lighter drinkers, would show signs of impairment on tasks of affective decision-making as measured by the Iowa Gambling Test (IGT), when compared to adolescents who never drank.
We tested 207 10th grade adolescents in Chengdu City, China, using two versions of the IGT, the original and a variant, in which the reward/punishment contingencies were reversed. This enables one to distinguish among different possibilities of impaired decision-making, such as insensitivity to long-term consequences, or hypersensitivity to reward. Furthermore, we tested working memory capacity using the Self-ordered Pointing Test (SOPT). Paper and pencil questionnaires were used to assess drinking behaviors and school academic performance.
Results indicated that relative to never-drinkers, adolescent binge drinkers, but not other (ever, past 30-day) drinkers, showed significantly lower net scores on the original version of the IGT especially in the latter trials. Furthermore, the profiles of behavioral performance from the original and variant versions of the IGT were consistent with a decision-making impairment attributed to hypersensitivity to reward. In addition, working memory and school academic performance revealed no differences between drinkers (at all levels) and never-drinkers. Logistic regression analysis showed that after controlling for demographic variables, working memory, and school academic performance, the IGT significantly predicted binge-drinking.
These findings suggest that a “myopia” for future consequences linked to hypersensitivity to reward is a key characteristic of adolescents with binge-drinking behavior, and that underlying neural mechanisms for this “myopia” for future consequences may serve as a predisposing factor that renders some adolescents more susceptible to future addictive behaviors.