VCU Earns $1.6 Million NIH Grant for Substance Abuse, Personality Disorders

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

The Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU will partner with the University of Oslo in Norway after receiving a $1.6 million dollar grant to research genetic and environmental factors in normal and abnormal personalities that increase the risk of developing substance abuse disorders.

Announced late last month, the collaboration is funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health and the Research Council of Norway to learn about health outcomes of lifetime trajectories affected by personality disorder or substance use disorder. The study will encompass a four-year period.

Two professors from the VCU School of Medicine will be the primary investigators on behalf of VCU. Continuing his research in genetic epidemiology which started in 1998, Department of Psychiatry director Kenneth Kendler, M.D., will be joined by assistant professor Nathan Gillespie, Ph.D. in analyzing data on approximately 2,000 twins from the Norwegian Twin Registry and Norway’s national population-based health registries.

“We know there’s a relationship between certain personality dimensions and substance use disorders,” Gillespie said. “We also know there’s immersions between personality disorders or abnormal personality. But what no one has done before is throw it all into a big overarching model.”

Using a fourth wave of data from the Norwegian Twin Registry that will be collected next year, those findings will be combined with other data that’s been and continues to be collected. According to Gillespie, grant researchers will observe longitudinal data to see if pathways between abnormal behavior and personality disorders can lead to substance abuse.

“The advantage of the twin data enables you to pass or separate out the genetic and environmental pathways,” Gillespie said.

Comparing data on twins who several have been found to have slight personality disorders and self reported substance use, researchers are using the data to differentiate whether substance abuse disorders are genetically predisposed or simply an outcome of being in environments which encourage “risky” behavior.

“For example, Is it the genetic risk underlying impulsivity which predicts substance use disorder or is it environmental risks? Does the relative contribution of genetic and environmental risk change over time?” Gillespie said. “It could be more social risk and impulsivity during teenage years that proves a liability for substance abuse disorders, but alternatively as an adult it could be more genetic risk underlying your personality traits for impulsivity that can predict your substance abuse disorder.”

As the data and analysis is collected, research presented to the Institute of Public Health and National Institute of Health will shape policy and support preventative and intervention programs for those with personality and substance abuse disorders. If any more evidence of direct causality is found, the knowledge can lead to more effective programs and treatments.

“The data from the twins, we’ll be able to match it with medical health records to see the downstream consequences of substance abuse,” Gillespie said. “How are they in terms of physical disability, mental and physical illness, seeming sickly, what are the profiles in terms of adverse outcomes? This is something we can answer with the Norwegian data.”

Institute of Psychiatry at University of Olso professor Ted Reichborn-Kjennerud, M.D. Ph.D., will be collaborating with Gillespie and Kendler on the project. Reichborn-Kjennerud currently serves as the director for the Institute of Public Health in Norway.

Gillespie said the partnership between VCU and the University of Olso improves the standing of two already highly reputable research universities. Using data from the Twin Registry and observing data from other twins to differentiate pathways is a process fairly unique to VCU, according to Gillespie.

Gillespie said definitive answers may not be found until the end of the project, maybe even later after that. Acknowledging the large sample sets needed for accurate conclusions, Gillespie said there needs to be even more analysis and respondents included, but adds VCU and the VIPBG are on the frontier for cutting edge meta-analysis.

“It’s what we do really well here at the VIPBG,” Gillespie said.

To learn more about the study, you can see the grant and research outline from the NIH here.

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