VCU researchers focus on genetics, environment in treating alcoholism

Illustration by Allison Verjinski

Recent research initiatives through VCU’s School of Medicine are focusing on genetic and environmental links to alcoholism. These links are shaping new treatment methods and helping identify the risk of Alcohol Use Disorder.

Diagnosis and treatment methods aiding AUD have shifted in response to the increasing prevalence of the illness. An estimated 88,000 people in the U.S. die from alcohol-related causes every year, according to the NIAAA. AUD is the third leading preventable cause of death, after tobacco and physical inactivity. Almost 6 percent of all deaths globally in 2012 were due to alcohol consumption.  

Alexis Edwards, a genetics professor in the Department of Psychiatry, works with data samples internationally to identify potential risk factors. Edwards has conducted research on samples from Sweden, Finland and the U.K.

“Just knowing that you have family members who have had problems with alcohol, that’s an indicator of genetic risk,” Edwards said. “[Knowledge of genetic factors] can be a very helpful tool for physicians … There are thousands of variants that incrementally increase or decrease your risk. There is no single gene for alcoholism.”

Edwards said international genetic data plays as important of a role as university-wide data. She works with Spit for Science, a project which looks at alcohol use and emotional health on VCU’s campus through surveys and genetic data.

Dace Svikis, a clinical psychology professor, said diagnostic criteria as defined by the American Psychiatric Association most recently changed to encompass more factors — like drinking more than intended, family or social problems due to drinking, tolerance and withdrawal — into diagnosis.

Treatment for alcohol use disorders has undergone a similar shift. The NIAA has implemented an Alcohol Treatment Navigator — an online resource which describes different treatment options available in specific areas.

“When it comes to AUD treatment, there has been a growing realization that ‘one size does not fit all’” Svikis said. “The NIAA Treatment Navigator is a valuable resource that helps to educate patients and providers about AUD and the range of effective AUD treatment options.”

The Treatment Navigator directs people to treatment options best suited for them. Svikis said the idea is conceptually sound, but relies on the availability of diverse treatment programming which many parts of the country lack.

“The end result is a restriction in patient treatment options,” Svikis said.

Svikis said VCU’s campus offers many resources to students and community members, like the MOTIVATE clinic and The Well’s RAMS in Recovery program.

The Wellness Resource Center provides recovery support and education on alcoholism. Resource options for students are expanding, according to center director Linda Hancock.

“The goal is to make VCU a recovery-ready campus,” Hancock said. “If any student is struggling with an issue, they’ll know what their resources are.”

Twenty percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In response, the Well offers substance abuse recovery programs ranging from the traditional 12-step approach to skills-based and holistic approaches.

Hancock said offering extensive resources is not the only step necessary to aiding AUD prevalence.

More than 90 percent of Americans with an alcohol use disorder do not get treatment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In efforts to offer treatment options to students and community members, VCU opened its outpatient clinic MOTIVATE last April. MOTIVATE provides multiple addiction treatment programs for people suffering from substance use disorders.

“I like to think of it as a continuum, where prevention, early intervention and treatment for recovery need to be part of the same [conversation],” Hancock said. “The beauty of having recovering students on campus is that they enrich that conversation.”

Saffeya Ahmed, Contributing Writer

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