|Vol. 5, No. 4, 1999 Page 2|
Poor verbal skills are a strong risk factor for behavioral problems, and a new study adds to evidence that verbal deficits also predispose children to substance abuse.
Gail Wasserman and colleagues studied 87 young “at-risk” boys, all younger brothers of adjudicated delinquents. At the beginning of the study, the researchers used dichotic listening tests (in which different sounds are delivered simultaneously to the lef ft and right ear) to evaluate how well their subjects’ brains processed language. Several years later, the researchers determined which children had abused drugs or alcohol.
Wasserman et al. report, “Reduced right ear accuracy, reflecting a deficit in left hemisphere processing ability, predicted substance use at follow-up.” This association remained significant after the researchers controlled for other cognitive or behavior ral factors commonly linked to substance abuse.
The researchers say that “verbal skills deficits might directly contribute to substance use, if children lacking the verbal skills to navigate through problematic life situations rely on other means.” Alternately, they say, poor verbal skills and substanc ce abuse may stem from a common brain dysfunction. For instance, they note, the prefrontal cortex is involved in dichotic listening skills, and studies link dysfunction of this brain region to poor impulse control and substance abuse.
Because of the strength of the association between substance abuse and impaired performance on dichotic listening tasks, the researchers say, “screens for language-related deficits may help identify children at risk for substance use disorders.” Conversel ly, they say, clinicians should evaluate children with substance abuse disorders for language deficits.
“Dichotic listening deficits and the prediction of substance use in young boys,” Gail A. Wasserman, Daniel S. Pine, Sara B. Workman, and Gerard E. Bruder, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 38, No. 8, p. . 1032. (Address not listed.)