Research Highlights

Research News
Saturday, February 20, 2016

Adults drank more alcohol in 2012–2013 than they did in 2001–2002, according to the most recent National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). NESARC–III is a cross-sectional survey sponsored, designed, and directed by NIAAA and is the largest study ever conducted on the co-occurrence of alcohol use, drug use, and related psychiatric conditions.

To assess how drinking patterns have changed over time, researchers compared the NESARC–III data with that from Wave 1 NESARC. In both surveys, which had similar objectives and content areas, researchers assessed a large sample of U.S. adults through personal interviews conducted in participants’ homes. However, unlike Wave 1 NESARC, NESARC–III researchers collected saliva samples from participants for future DNA analyses.

Data analysis revealed that between 2001–2002 and 2012–2013, past-year drinking prevalence increased from 65.4 percent to 72.7 percent, and the prevalence of monthly binge drinking increased from 21.5 percent to 25.8 percent. Likewise, overall frequency of drinking increased from 83.5 days per year to 87.9 days per year. The authors of the study observed that these statistics, along with the increase in daily alcohol consumption (from 0.628 ounces to 0.751 ounces), indicate “a wetter drinking climate.”

One particularly striking finding was that African Americans experienced disproportionate increases in past-year drinking prevalence (from 53.2 percent to 66.1 percent) and past-month binge drinking prevalence (from 19 percent to 27.7 percent), as well as average daily volume (from 0.751 ounces to 1.033 ounces), compared with Caucasians. The authors suggest this may indicate disparities in treatment availability and/or treatment seeking.

Another notable finding was that percent increases in prevalence and overall drinking frequency were about twice as high for women as for men, prior to adjustment for sociodemographic differences. Adjusting for these differences, women demonstrated larger increases than men in all consumption measures. According to the authors, this finding may contribute to evidence of a closing gender gap in heavy drinking.

Looking ahead, scientists will continue to analyze the various waves of NESARC data to advance our understanding of drinking trends through comparison of survey results over time.

Dawson, D.A.; Goldstein, R.B.; Saha, T.D.; and Grant, B.F. Changes in alcohol consumption: United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 148:56–61, 2015. PMID: 25620731


Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 1, June 2016.

Research News
Friday, February 19, 2016

In a recent study, Cindy L. Ehlers, Ph.D., and colleagues examined the clinical course of alcohol use disorder (AUD)—as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM–5)—in a sample of young adult (ages 18–30) individuals of Mexican American (MA) and Native American (NA) descent.

Face-to-face interviews using the Semi-Structured Assessment for the Genetics of Alcoholism (SSAGA) were conducted with 619 MA and 510 NA community-based participants recruited in southwest California. Of the total sample of 1,129 participants, 634 (56 percent) met criteria for a lifetime diagnosis of DSM–5 AUD. Mild AUD was found in 22 percent of participants, moderate AUD in 14 percent, and severe AUD in 20 percent. Further data analysis revealed that 70 percent of the NA men, 64 percent of the NA women, 56 percent of the MA men, and 42 percent of the MA women met the lifetime diagnostic criteria for AUD.

The researchers examined the clinical course of AUD, as defined by order and progression of 36 alcohol-related life events, within their MA and NA young adult sample. A comparison of these alcohol-related life experiences and their order of occurrence over time was made between male and female and between MA and NA participants. NAs reported more alcohol-related life events and at an earlier age than MAs. Otherwise, a high degree of similarity in clinical course was found between men and women and between MA and NA individuals. The researchers also analyzed their data across severity of DSM–5 AUD disorder (mild, moderate, or severe). The high degree of similarity in the clinical course for moderate and severe AUD and across genders was not found for mild AUD. This information suggests that mild AUD may not be part of the same clinical continuum as moderate and severe AUD for NA and MA populations.

It should be noted that this study was limited by the specificity of the participant sample, which means the results may not be generalizable to the population as a whole. However, the findings are significant because they are informative for understanding health disparities in the groups studied and because they provide some early insights into the new DSM–5 mild, moderate, and severe AUD categories.


Ehlers, C.L.; Stouffer, G.M.; Corey, L.; and Gilder, D.A. The clinical course of DSM-5 alcohol use disorders in young adult native and Mexican Americans. American Journal of Addiction 24(8):713–721, 2015. PMID: 26346282


Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 1, February 2016.

Research News
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Interventions to reduce anxiety and depression may help prevent relapse in individuals with chronic pain who are recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). This conclusion comes from a recent study in which investigators reanalyzed data collected from people with chronic pain who participated in one of two major clinical trials on alcohol treatment, one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom. Both trials included the collection of data that allowed the authors of the present study to look at the links between pain, negative affect, and relapse. In the present study, the researchers conducted a separate reanalysis for each of the two original studies.
People in recovery from AUD commonly have relapses to heavy drinking following a stretch of abstinence or cutting back. Previous research has shown that risk factors for relapse include stress, craving, and the “negative affect” states of anxiety and depression. Pain has not been widely studied as a risk factor, even though chronic pain is common and often self-managed with alcohol.
Based on their new analyses, the authors report that people with higher pain levels in both studies tended to have higher levels of negative affect and increased rates of relapse. The key finding, however, was that the participants’ levels of anxiety or depression in both studies predicted relapse better than their particular pain levels.
It is important to note that in the U.K. clinical trial, a high-intensity behavioral intervention called social behavior network therapy (SBNT) appeared to reduce the effects of pain on negative affect and relapse. Participants in that trial were randomly assigned to receive either SBNT, which helped build social networks that supported abstinence or reduced drinking, or a lower-intensity motivational enhancement therapy (MET). In the MET group, participants with greater pain scores at the end of treatment tended to have more heavy-drinking days 12 months later. In contrast, those in the SBNT group with greater pain scores at the end of treatment did not drink significantly more a year later, than those with lower pain scores. The authors suggest that the healthy social support system built by the SBNT group may have reduced the participants’ tendencies to drink heavily in response to pain or negative affect.
The analysis was designed to show associations among pain, negative affect, and alcohol use, but not whether one factor came before or caused another. The authors concluded that the findings lend support for the SBNT intervention as well as future research into the potential benefits of negative- affect treatments for people with AUD and chronic pain.
Witkiewitz, K.; McCallion, E.; Vowles, K.E.; Kirouac, M.; Frohe, T.; Maisto, S.A.; Hodgson, R.; Heather, N. Association between physical pain and alcohol treatment outcomes: The mediating role of negative affect. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 83(6)1044–1057, 2015. PMID: 2609837
Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2016.  
Research News
Friday, June 24, 2016
Both humans and animals experience stress. Ideally, stress serves as a survival tool, allowing organisms to adapt and overcome adversity in an unpredictable environment. As a result, higher-order animals have developed complex systems to perceive, react to, and adapt to psychological stress, ensuring that they can respond to environmental dangers that might harm or kill them. But for some, the response to stress can go awry, and what started as a natural response to a changing environment can ultimately become a chronic disease such as depression, anxiety disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent review in Nature Neuroscience explores how innovative findings in animals can advance our understanding of stress-related mental disorders in humans.
The review, written by Dr. Ahmad Hariri, Duke University, and Dr. Andrew Holmes, NIAAA Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience, notes that the neural circuits and underlying genes that control the stress response are similar across species. Hence, studies in animals (known as preclinical studies) have revealed much about the systems that play a central role in psychological stress, such as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, a complex interaction between three endocrine glands. Based on preclinical work, scientists also have an important understanding of how the brain perceives and processes stressful experiences. Across species, the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex work together to play a critical role in both short-term and long-term response to stress. Using animal models, scientists have also been able to identify genetic variants that contribute to stress-related disorders. These candidate genes could help identify people at risk for such disorders and provide possible targets for developing treatments.
Preclinical models have been developed for a wide range of disorders. The authors note that “translational stress research is thus positioned to be a standard bearer for the charge toward the recasting of mental illness as manifestations of disordered brain circuits and the behavioral processes they subserve.”
Hariri, A., and Holmes, A. Finding translation in stress research. Nature Neuroscience 18(10):1347–1352, 2015. PMID: 26404709

Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2016.

Research News
Thursday, November 10, 2016

Researchers have identified a blood test that may help predict how severely a baby will be affected by alcohol exposure during pregnancy, according to a study published November 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study authors, from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, Texas A&M College of Medicine and the Omni-Net Birth Defects Prevention Program in Ukraine, say the findings could facilitate early intervention to improve the health of infants and children who were prenatally exposed to alcohol, according to a UC San Diego news release.

Co-authors of the paper include: Sridevi Balarama, and Alexander M. Tseng, Texas A&M Health Science Center; and Lyubov Yevtushok, and Natalya Zymak-Zakutnya, Omni-Net Ukraine Birth Defects Prevention Program.

Funding for this research came, in part, from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (grant numbers U01AA014835, U24AA014811, R01AA013440) and the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Read the full text of the UC San Diego news release