BACKGROUND: Neurobiological factors have been implicated in the increased susceptibility for developing alcohol dependence that offspring from alcoholic families exhibit. The P300 component of the event-related potential shows developmental changes during childhood and adolescence that appear to be related to risk status. The underlying structural changes that accompany these neurophysiological changes are not well understood. METHODS: Magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure cerebral, amygdala, and hippocampal volumes in 17 high-risk adolescent and young adult offspring from multiplex alcoholism families and 17 age-, gender-, and IQ-matched control subjects without a family history for alcoholism or other substance dependence. Twenty-two of the subjects are part of a longitudinal prospective study and have been followed an average of 7.3 years, making it possible to relate P300 developmental trajectories to structural volumes. RESULTS: High-risk adolescents and young adults showed reduced right amygdala volume in comparison with control subjects. Right amygdala volume was significantly correlated with visual P300 amplitude. CONCLUSIONS: Offspring from families having a high density of alcoholism differ in both neurophysiological and neuroanatomical characteristics that could not be explained by personal drinking history or particular childhood and adolescent psychopathology. Because the amygdala tends to increase in volume during childhood and adolescence, smaller volumes in high-risk children may indicate a developmental delay that parallels delays seen in visual P300 amplitude.
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