Research Highlights

Research News
Thursday, February 15, 2018

An NIAAA study shows that people who drink socially and have certain risk factors for alcohol use disorder (AUD) self-administer more alcohol and at a faster rate during a single laboratory session of alcohol consumption than people at low risk for developing AUD. Participants with all three risk factors evaluated in this study—being male, having a family history of AUD, and having higher impulsivity behaviors—had the highest rates of binge drinking. The findings suggest that people at risk for AUD have different drinking patterns than those at low risk.

The study, led by senior author Vijay Ramchandani, Ph.D., Chief of NIAAA’s Section on Human Psychopharmacology, and co-first authors Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., and Matthew Sloan, M.D., Postdoctoral Fellows in the Section, was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks men—in about 2 hours. Binge drinking may be an early indicator for risk of developing AUD. Examining drinking behavior during individual drinking sessions may provide more clues for identifying individuals at risk for AUD.

To determine whether the examined AUD risk factors can predict the rate of binge drinking, 159 social drinkers between the ages of 21 and 45 completed assessments about family history of problem drinking, behavioral impulsivity, and level of response to alcohol. They then participated in a laboratory session in which they self-administered alcohol intravenously to mimic a typical drinking session with friends. The participants’ BACs were continuously estimated by computer and confirmed by breathalyzer every 15 minutes.

Participants who were identified as being at a higher risk for AUD administered alcohol faster, reaching binge-like BACs more quickly than those at a lower risk for developing AUD. Having a family history of AUD was most strongly associated with a faster rate of binge drinking. Participants with all three risk factors had the fastest rates of intravenous alcohol administration—five times faster—during a session, compared to the lowest risk group. Although more research is needed, the results suggest that, as part of a clinical exam, assessing binge drinking during individual drinking sessions may help identify individuals in need of early intervention.



Gowin, J.L.; Sloan, M.E.; Stangl, B.L.; Vatsalya, V.; and Ramchandani, V.A. Vulnerability for alcohol use disorder and rate of alcohol consumption. The American Journal of Psychiatry 174(11):1094–1101, 2017. PMID: 28774194


--This article first appeared in the NIAAA Spectrum, Vol. 10 Issue 1, Winter 2018.

Research News
Thursday, February 15, 2018

Varenicline, an anti-smoking medication, may reduce craving for alcohol in people who drink heavily and for people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) who are also depressed, according to two recent studies. The research, funded by NIAAA and led by Sherry McKee, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, provides more evidence that varenicline may be a potential treatment for AUD.

Previous research has shown that varenicline can reduce alcohol use among heavy drinkers; however, the mechanisms by which varenicline exerts its effects are not well-understood. To elucidate these mechanisms, researchers investigated the effects of varenicline on alcohol craving induced by cues associated with drinking (alcohol craving is a major cause of relapse in AUD). Volunteers who were smokers and drank heavily took varenicline or a placebo. After 10 days, they completed tests in a laboratory that assessed their cravings for alcohol in response to neutral cues and alcohol-related cues, such as smelling and handling a glass of alcohol.

Participants receiving varenicline reported less craving for alcohol when exposed to the alcohol-related cues compared to those who received the placebo. This finding suggests that reducing alcohol craving may be a mechanism through which varenicline exerts its effects on alcohol consumption.

In a separate study, Dr. McKee’s team reanalyzed data from a 2016 study of individuals with AUD to determine whether symptoms of depression, which frequently co-occurs with AUD, influenced the effectiveness of varenicline on reducing alcohol consumption. Participants who reported moderate to high levels of depression had less alcohol craving and drank less alcohol during laboratory tests after receiving varenicline. These findings show that depression may influence varenicline efficacy in individuals with AUD and suggest that varenicline may be helpful for reducing alcohol consumption in people who drink heavily and have heightened levels of depressive symptoms.

These studies shed light on a potential mechanism by which varenicline reduces drinking in individuals with AUD. Understanding the effects of varenicline on alcohol craving may prove useful in developing future AUD treatment strategies.


Roberts, W.; Harrison, E.L.R.; and McKee, S.A. Effects of varenicline on alcohol cue reactivity in heavy drinkers. Psychopharmacology 234(18):2737–2745, 2017. PMID: 28600734

Roberts, W.; Verplaetse, T.L.; Moore, K.; Oberleitner, L.; Picciotto, M.R.; and McKee, S.A. Effects of varenicline on alcohol self-administration and craving in drinkers with depressive symptoms. Journal of Psychopharmacology 31(7):906–914, 2017. PMID: 28351203


--This article first appeared in the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 10, Issue 1, Winter 2018.

Research News
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

More than 7,500 children recruited for study to date; data available for first 4,500

The National Institutes of Health today released to the scientific community an unparalleled dataset from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. To date, more than 7,500 youth and their families have been recruited for the study, well over half the participant goal.  Approximately 30 terabytes of data (about three times the size of the Library of Congress collection), obtained from the first 4,500 participants, will be available to scientists worldwide to conduct research on the many factors that influence brain, cognitive, social, and emotional development. The ABCD study is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. MRI of adolescent brains activated during a memory task in ABCD study. Source Dr. Richard Watts

This interim release provides high-quality baseline data on a large sample of 9-10-year-old children, including basic participant demographics, assessments of physical and mental health, substance use, culture and environment, neurocognition, tabulated structural and functional neuroimaging data, and minimally processed brain images, as well as biological data such as pubertal hormone analyses. The data will be made available through the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Data Archive, which can be accessed by researchers who obtain a free NIMH Data Archive account. All personally identifiable information is removed from the data to ensure participant confidentiality and anonymity.

"By sharing this interim baseline dataset with researchers now, the ABCD study is enabling scientists to begin analyzing and publishing novel research on the developing adolescent brain," said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "As expected, drug use is minimal among this young cohort, which is critical because it will allow us to compare brain images before and after substance use begins within individuals who start using, providing needed insight into how experimentation with drugs, alcohol and nicotine affect developing brains." 

"Sharing ABCD data and other related datasets with the research community, in an infrastructure that allows easy query, data access, and cloud computation, will help us understand many aspects of health and human development." said Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., director of NIMH. "These datasets provide extraordinary opportunities for computational neuroscientists to address problems with direct public health relevance."

This comprehensive dataset, which will be disaggregated by sex, racial/ethnic group, and socioeconomic status, will allow researchers to address numerous questions related to adolescent brain development to help inform future prevention and treatment efforts, public health strategies and policy decisions, including, but not limited to:

  • How do sports injuries impact developmental outcomes?

  • What is the relationship between screen time and brain and social development?

  • How does the occasional versus regular use of substances (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, marijuana) affect learning and the developing brain?

  • What are some of the factors that contribute to achievement gaps?

  • How do sleep, nutrition, and physical activity affect learning, brain development and other health outcomes across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups?

  • What brain pathways are associated with the onset and progression of mental health disorders and do these pathways differ by sex?

  • What is the relationship between substance use and mental illness?  

  • How do genetic and environmental factors contribute to brain development?

"The collection and release of this baseline data is a crucial step in ongoing efforts to sharpen our understanding of the link between adolescent alcohol use and long-term harmful effects on brain development and function," said George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Recruitment of participants began in September 2016 through outreach to public, charter, and private schools, as well as twin registries in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia. The ABCD Study is designed to include a diverse population that reflects the demographics of the U.S., however these interim data may not fully capture that diversity as enrollment is not yet complete. So far, 7,637 youth have been enrolled, including 6,399 single participants and 1,238 twins/multiples, reaching a 66 percent recruitment milestone. The study aims to enroll a total of 11,500 children by the end of 2018. The next annual data release will include the full participant cohort.

Participants will be followed for 10 years, during which data are collected on a semi-annual and annual basis through interviews and behavioral testing. Neuroimaging data, including high resolution MRI, are collected every two years to measure changes in brain structure and function.

The ABCD Coordinating Center. and Data Analysis and Informatics Center are housed at the University of California, San Diego and recruitment is being conducted at 21 study sites across the country. For more information, please visit the ABCD website at

The ABCD study is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Cancer Institute, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the Division of School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with additional partnerships with the National Institute of Justice, the CDC Division of Violence Prevention, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Read the full news release at



Research News
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

NIAAA seeks volunteers for a research study on alcohol use disorder aimed at reducing craving for alcohol.

Hormones are naturally occurring chemicals in the body. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. It may also stimulate alcohol cravings and use. Researchers want to learn more about alcohol cravings and test if a drug that blocks ghrelin lowers alcohol cravings.  

Learn more at


Join a Study NIAAA clinical research


Office of the Clinical Director, NIAAA



Research News
Monday, May 1, 2017
Many alcohol studies rely on participants to self-report how much and how often they drink, which can, at times, result in unreliable data. Biomarkers (biological markers) based on indicators in blood or other bodily fluids can be objective measures of alcohol use. Some biomarkers directly measure whether an individual has recently been drinking by measuring components of alcohol in blood or urine after it is metabolized. Other biomarkers work by detecting the toxic effects that alcohol misuse may be having over time on organ systems or body chemistry, indirectly signaling an alcohol problem. Biomarkers have a variety of uses, including screening for possible alcohol problems in people who are unwilling or unable to provide accurate self-reports of their drinking, and objectively showing that someone with alcohol use disorder has abstained from drinking.
However, there are limitations to using currently recognized biomarkers. Some biomarkers are less accurate in certain groups, such as women and younger individuals, and it is often difficult to interpret the type of drinking (quantity/duration) measured by the biomarker. For these reasons, it is recommended that biomarkers be used in conjunction with self-report.
But what if researchers had access to a tool that could give perfectly accurate data about a person’s drinking?
To this end, NIAAA is once again challenging the biotech community to design a wearable device capable of measuring blood alcohol in near real-time. This time, however, developers are being tasked with creating a device that measures alcohol concentration in the blood or in the interstitial fluid that surrounds the body’s cells, as opposed to using technology that detects alcohol released through the skin in sweat or vapor. As in the first competition, the ideal biosensor would be capable of measuring alcohol levels noninvasively as a sleek and unobtrusive device. The creators of the winning prototype will be awarded $200,000 through, which lists federal incentive prizes and competitions. The second place developers will receive $100,000.
“Our first Challenge was a huge success. The winning devices made important strides in improving transdermal alcohol sensing,” says NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D.
In May 2016, NIAAA announced that BACtrack had won the first Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge with its Skyn prototype. The wrist-worn device detects blood alcohol concentration (BAC) using a fuel-cell technology similar to that in devices used by law enforcement for roadside alcohol testing. MILO, Inc., won second prize for its design using disposable cartridges to continuously track BAC.
“We have learned that there is real interest in the private sector around wearable alcohol biosensors, and that innovation using distinct means of alcohol detection is on the horizon,” says M. Katherine Jung, Ph.D., Director of NIAAA’s Division of Metabolism and Health Effects, and co-leader of the competition.
Innovation is encouraged, and creative solutions could include, but are not limited to, the adaptation and miniaturization of technologies such as spectroscopy or wave technology.
“We want to continue to harness the power of the private sector, because if alcohol biosensors become a part of the ‘wearable toolbox,’ then tangible new opportunities will become available that can profoundly affect the field of alcohol research,” says Dr. Jung.
In addition to its potential for researchers, alcohol biosensors could also be a tool for consumers who wish to track their personal drinking patterns.
Competition submissions (a working prototype, data proving functionality/reliability, and photos/videos) will be accepted until May 15, 2017, with winners announced on or after August 1, 2017.