Scientists have been awarded a €10 million (£6.8 million) grant to investigate the brain mechanisms behind addiction.
The four-year project, funded by the European Commission, will involve 2,000 teenagers and the work of 17 partner organisations across Europe, including the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and Cambridge, Sussex and Nottingham universities.
"We want to know why people like things, how they react to reward and punishment and what role impulsivity plays," said Gunter Schumann, head of addiction biology at the Institute of Psychiatry, who is co-ordinating the project. "These behaviours are fundamental to the development of addictions and other psychiatric disorders, and an understanding of brain regions and genetic mechanisms involved in generating these behaviours will aid in prevention and treatment of such disorders."
The World Bank has estimated that alcohol and smoking cause 12 per cent of deaths in high-income countries. Alcohol-related problems have been estimated to cost the UK's National Health Service as much as £9 billion a year.
Researchers on the Imagen project will use brain-imaging methods to monitor blood flow in the brains of 13 and 14-year-olds to try to identify the regions and functions associated with different types of behaviour. The young people taking part in the study will be psychometrically assessed during recruitment and will be tested again three to five years later. DNA samples will be taken, and the study will try to link specific brain functions associated with mental disorders to genetic variations and relevant behavioural characteristics.
"It is a very exciting project," Professor Schumann said. "To get the answers we need requires a big study like this, and it is rare to have one of such scale and expertise.
"The goal is to be able to relate specific behavioural patterns to what we see in the genetic imaging study. Integrating this information will result in better understanding of the neurobiological basis of behaviours that carry an increased risk for addictions and psychiatric disorders."