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Reinout Wiers,
University of Amsterdam

Tracking young people’s life pathways

For 10 years, a large-scale European project called IMAGEN has been monitoring the behaviour and mental health of 2000 youngsters in 4 countries. From the age of 14, they have been given questionnaires, tests and brain scans on a regular basis. Blood samples have also been taken for genetic research.

Thanks to an ERANID grant, now that the youngsters are 23 researchers will also be taking a close look at their use of addictive substances, on the basis of hair samples combined with psychological and anthropological analysis. Reinout Wiers, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and leader of the ERANID project, is delighted with the grant. ‘We can enrich the huge quantity of data collected by IMAGEN, adding new qualitative and quantitative data,’ he says. ‘This should enable us to distil pathways that give us more information about why one young person uses drugs and can stop using them without too much difficulty, while another becomes addicted and develops all kinds of problems.’


The IMAGEN project is taking place in four countries: Britain, Germany, France and Ireland. Only Ireland is participating in this additional study as a non-member of ERANID. Wiers is very happy that the Netherlands can now join IMAGEN. ‘For one reason or another we did not join the study ten years ago, despite the fact that the Netherlands had a good reputation for addiction research even then,’ he says. ‘It’s great that we can join in now. All those brain scans, genetic research and other unique data can be combined with the data from our research. Take a behavioural trait like impulsiveness. We know that it’s related to addiction behaviour, but is it a cause or an effect? Or both? Now that all kinds of data are available from the period before youngsters use substances, we might be able to answer this kind of chicken-and-egg question.’

Participant observation

The research groups in Germany, Britain and France will not only be joined by Dutch behavioural scientists, anthropologists from the University of Amsterdam will also be working on the project. ‘Anita Hardon and her group are world experts when it comes to participant observation research,’ says Wiers. ‘They will be delving into the world of some of the drug-using IMAGEN youngsters in cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Paris and London. This will give us a completely different picture of their life than what has already emerged from all the quantitative data that have been collected. And because everything is part of one big project, we can combine all the data. Furthermore, the information we get from the anthropologists will enable us to draw up new questionnaires that we can present to the entire research population.’

Hair samples

Another addition to the IMAGEN study will be hair samples from participants. For a year, they will supply three centimetres of several hairs each quarter. This will allow the researchers to objectively determine what substances the youngsters use during the course of that year. ‘So we will have brain scans, genetic information, hair samples, data on all kinds of contextual variables like family and neighbourhood, and also qualitative descriptions of their environment,’ says Wiers. ‘This will allow us to identify a mix of factors that can predict with some reliability which path each individual is likely to take. And we will understand in more depth what that pathway looks like. This should certainly produce some fascinating information as regards substance use, which we can use in prevention activities and early interventions, for example. If you know which youngsters are at risk and at what age, you can focus on them.’

International diversity

Of course the differences between the participating countries will also be considered. Not only do the substances used differ, so do subcultures. ‘We know that a lot of heroin gets use in London,’ Wiers says. ‘It might be that youngsters with certain traits are unable to withstand the temptation to use heroin in London, but that the same type of youngster in France, for example, never uses heroin, or indeed any substances at all. Similarities and differences like this can be important for a country’s policy’. Wiers and his fellow researchers are currently busy drawing up research plans, and then they will be collecting and interpreting all the data. The yield from the project will not become clear for another 4 years or so.

> More information on the funded projects in the first ERANID call for proposals 'Understanding drug use pathways'