VCU, Norwegian university receive NIH grant to study substance abuse pathways

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 grant to research behavioral risk factors in developing substance-abuse disorders.

The collaboration is funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health and the Research Council of Norway to learn about genetic and environmental health outcomes of individuals affected by personality or substance-abuse disorder. The study will span a four-year period.

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

According to Gillespie, the grant researchers will observe longitudinal data to see if pathways between abnormal behavior and personality disorders can lead to substance abuse.

“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 they will collect next year, the researchers will combine their findings with ongoing and previously collected data.

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

By comparing data on twins, several of whom have slight personality disorders and self-reported substance-use habits, 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.

“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.

For example, he said that social risk and impulsivity during teenage years might prove a liability for substance abuse disorders, but alternatively as an adult it could be more genetic risk underlying certain personality traits for impulsivity that predict substance abuse disorder.

Furthermore, the researchers’ findings presented to the Institute of Public Health and National Institute of Health could potentially help shape policy and lead to more effective preventative and intervention programs and treatments for those suffering from substance-abuse disorders.

If the researchers find more evidence of direct causality, their conclusions could potentially lead to more effective programs and treatments.

“We’ll be able to match (the twin data) 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? What are the profiles in terms of adverse outcomes? This is something we can answer with the Norwegian data.”

Gillespie said the partnership between VCU and the University of Oslo improves the standing of two already highly reputable research universities.

Ted Reichborn-Kjennerud, a professor of the Institute of Psychiatry at University of Oslo, will also collaborate 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 process of using twin data to differentiate pathways is fairly unique to VCU and may require more respondents to most accurately determine the research findings.

Thus, Gillespie said the researchers may not reach definitive answers until the end of the project or even after its conclusion, but said the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU is on the frontier for cutting edge meta-analysis, however.

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

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