Student studies science of binge drinking

Photoillustration by Sarah King
Photoillustration by Sarah King
Photoillustration by Sarah King

College campuses often have one thing in common: students who binge drink.

This problem often leads to bigger issues with drinking later in life, and graduate student Megan Cooke is researching why.

Cooke recently began working with the Collaborative Advanced Research on Imaging facility (CARI) after receiving a funding grant. She plans to research the genetic and physiological differences among problem alcohol users.

“In previous studies looking at alcohol users, we’ve sort of treated all problem alcohol users the same,” Cooke said, adding that the issue is a lot more subtle than that.

In reality there has already been a lot of research that suggests that individuals use alcohol for different reasons and have different life trajectories that have gotten them to the place of problem using.”

Cooke’s grant was fully funded at the end of September, at which time she began working on the neuroimaging component of the study. Cooke said the next step in her research will include genetic analysis.

Cooke first became interested in this subject while pursuing her bachelor’s in psychology from Furman University, where a lot of her research examined how childhood socioeconomic stressors could affect adult physiological stress responses.

Photoillustration by Sarah King
Photoillustration by Sarah King

Cooke said issues with drinking can come from a lifelong genetic trait, which Cooke studied while working as a research assistant at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s center in Bethesda.

She said twin studies have often been used to compare alcohol use between identical or fraternal twins in order gain an estimate of how much of the substance abuse disorder is genetically influenced.

“The more I learned about it the more I realized you can’t really ignore the other influences because genetic and biological factors represent such a huge portion of why someone goes on to develop problem use,” Cooke said.

That’s exactly what brought me to VCU and to the graduate program I’m in now, is I thought I needed training in genetics and in how to think about how genes play a role in these traits, and how to analyze that data.”

Alcohol abuse is undeniably present on most college campuses, with about four out of five college students reporting they consume alcohol, and around half of them identifying as binge drinkers, according to the NIAAA website.

Photoillustration by Sarah King
Photoillustration by Sarah King

The NIAAA also reported a yearly average of 1,825 deaths among college students ages 18-24 due to alcohol related injuries and more than 97,000 students falling victim to alcohol-related rape or sexual abuse each year.

“This research is something that a lot of people can relate to,” Cooke said. “Obviously not all users develop problems, but some people develop problems for certain periods in their life and others develop very serious problems that persist throughout their life.”

Cooke said the fact that some people can pick up alcohol and put it down, while others are consistent social users and still others develop a dependence became really interesting to her.

Photoillusration by Sarah King
Photoillusration by Sarah King

She said she was especially fascinated with discovering why these differences occurred and why some people use to excess, socially or not at all.

The NIAAA’s website also reports a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and academic problems, concluding that about 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.

“When substance use starts interfering with students’ ability to live up to their values or they start adjusting their values because of their substance use, that’s when we look into getting them help,” said Tom Bannard, the program coordinator for Rams in Recovery.

Rams in Recovery is a program offered to students through The Wellness Resource Center geared toward helping students struggling with substance abuse.

“If their substance use is causing problems in the dorms, legal problems or grade problems, those factors come together and are often indicative of a bigger issue,” Bannard said.

Photoillustration by Sarah King
Photoillustration by Sarah King

By researching the biological and genetic influences that can factor into a life of substance abuse, Cooke hopes to find better ways to treat people suffering from alcohol dependence, especially by discovering more detailed categories that each type of user falls into.

“When something really speaks to you and you really relate to it, you’re much more likely to listen and pay attention and take it to heart, rather than if it’s just this blanket message to everyone,” Cooke said.

She said she thinks having a better understanding of the biological component among these different groups could lead both to both better treatment options and also better understanding of how these different groups understand and process the world.

“Instead of it being a one size fits all model, you can think about those genetic differences and can start to think about what interventions or what preventative messages you can put out there that are more tailored to these certain groups,” Cooke said. “You can think, ‘okay how do these groups see and use alcohol and what can we really target there that might really resonate with them.’”

Article by: Megan Corsano, Contributing Writer


Executive Editor, Sarah King

12043164_10154409820528747_3562469904289705643_nSarah is a junior in the honors college studying political science and philosophy of law. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for “CQ Researcher” and “SAGE Business Researcher” in Washington, D.C. Her independent work has been published on platforms including the Huffington Post, RVA Magazine and alongside her peers at Harvard, Brown and Columbia on knowyourix.org. Sarah’s primary nutrient is Redbull. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

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