Background: Problem substance use often begins in adolescence. This vulnerability likely stems, at least partially, from relatively rapid increases in sensation seeking occurring in early to mid-adolescence and more gradual improvements in impulse control occurring through later adolescence. Better understanding how these processes develop in high-risk youth may lead to enhanced substance use disorder treatment and prevention strategies.
Methods: We characterized trajectories of self-reported impulsivity and sensation seeking in 305 FH+ youths who at minimum had a father with a history of alcohol or other drug use disorders and 81 youths with no family histories of substance use disorders (FH-). Assessments started at ages 10 to 12 and continued at 6-month intervals for up to 42 months. In addition, a subset of 58 FH+ youths who began alcohol or other drug use before age 15 (FH+ Users) were compared to 58 FH+ propensity-matched adolescents who did not initiate substance use before age 15 (FH+ Non-Users).
Results: Compared to FH- youths at preadolescence, FH+ youths reported higher general impulsivity and higher impulsivity related to poor planning and attention. Over time, there were no differential effects of FH status on changes in impulsivity or sensation seeking across adolescence. FH+ Users had smaller decreases in general impulsivity and impulsivity related to restlessness and fidgeting across adolescence than FH+ Non-Users. FH+ Users also had greater increases in sensation seeking across adolescence than FH+ Non-Users.
Conclusions: Increased impulsivity in FH+ youths may make them less able to regulate sensation seeking drives that peak in adolescence, which may contribute to their high risk for developing substance use disorders. Additionally, FH+ adolescents who initiate early use may be at increased risk in part due to increased impulsivity coupled with greater increases in sensation seeking.
Keywords: Adolescence; Early-Onset Substance Use; Family History; Impulsivity; Sensation Seeking.
Copyright © 2016 by the Research Society on Alcoholism.