Researchers set sights on alcoholism

College parties are not the only places alcohol can be found at Yale. Faculty at the School of Medicine are involved in research on a range of health issues stemming from alcohol use and abuse.

University laboratories have recently received grants from the National Institutes of Health and other organizations to study risk factors and treatments for alcoholism. Much of this research has been conducted by the medical school’s Psychiatry Department.

Professors at the Center for the Translational Neuroscience of Alcoholism conduct research to understand alcoholism’s neurobiological underpinnings, psychiatry professor Stephanie O’Malley said.

O’Malley, who coordinates the center’s clinical activities involving multiple projects, is in the final stages of a study evaluating two recently-developed drugs to treat alcoholism, acamprosate and naltrexone — the latter was approved after an NIH-funded study that was partially conducted at the University.

“That really began to lay some of the groundwork for future developments for medical treatments for alcoholism,” O’Malley said.

Dr. Ismene Petrakis, a psychiatry professor who is also involved with CTNA, said finding treatments for alcohol dependence is a primary interest. She said present medications are not effective for all patients.

Dr. Daniel Mathalon, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Medical School, said he is currently studying brain activity in alcoholics and non-alcoholic control subjects when shown images of liquor and beer. The ongoing study is an attempt to develop a useful paradigm for observing the differences in brain function resulting from alcoholism, he said.

“If we can understand the brain circuitry that subserves craving and craving induced by alcohol cues, then we may be able to devise treatments … that will reduce the craving and reduce the risk for relapse in alcoholics,” Mathalon said.

He said craving in response to alcohol cues is a common trigger for relapse. Alcohol cues include images of those beverages, so subjects were presented with images of drinks for a split second while they were engaged in an unrelated task. The researchers performed functional magnetic resonance imagery scans of the subjects as they viewed the images to determine what brain regions became active after the image was seen.

“What we’re finding right now in our fMRI data is that these incidental presentations of alcohol beverages are presenting significantly higher responses in alcoholics versus nonalcoholic controls,” Mathalon said. “Craving areas, reward processing — these regions are getting more activated in the alcoholics than in the controls.”

Many current alcohol studies are not directed at college students’ drinking habits, Petrakis said, but research is probing the relationship between alcohol and other harmful habits. A current study at Yale will investigate the specific drinking patterns of young adults that may lead to regular tobacco use later in life.

Under the auspices of the Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center, an ongoing study by psychiatry professor Sherry McKee is analyzing the comorbidity of alcohol and tobacco use in 21-25 year-olds.

“Epidemiological research … shows that alcohol use facilitates the use of tobacco,” McKee said. “People who drink are more likely at a later time to be dependent on tobacco.”

McKee said a large number of teenage smokers only smoke when they drink, but young adulthood is the period during which regular, daily tobacco use begins. She said her study, which will begin recruiting subjects next week, will allow subjects to self-administer alcohol and cigarettes to examine how the two drugs are used together.

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