January 22, 2016

An estimated 15.1 million adults in the United States have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use. This includes approximately 6.2 percent of all American adults, a staggering percentage of drinkers nationwide.

“The amount of alcohol consumed in the US is not only substantial, but unequally divided in terms of who drinks how much,” said Dr. Kathleen Grant, Chief and Senior Scientist of Behavioral Neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC). “A small proportion drink the vast majority of alcohol sold.”

But why can some people safely enjoy a single nightcap, while others are at risk for developing alcoholism or a serious alcohol problem?

Dr. Grant hopes to answer that very question by studying a population of rhesus monkeys. Through her research, she is unraveling why some people are at a greater risk for heavy drinking habits.

Dr. Grant studies monkeys who have been exposed to alcohol over the course of three months. Like humans, some choose to drink water, some choose to drink alcohol, and some choose to drink a combination of the two. Understanding why certain monkeys choose to drink alcohol heavily provides clues as to why some humans are at a higher risk for developing a drinking problem.

Dr. Grant has found that males – both monkeys and humans – are more likely to become problem alcohol drinkers than females. In addition, monkeys that are exposed to stressful situations or stimuli choose to drink alcohol more than those that are not.

However, there are several risk factors that affect humans, but are not seen in monkeys. For example, in humans, family history of alcoholism can affect one’s inherited genes and environment and ultimately lead to an increased risk of heavy drinking. In addition, drinking alcohol between the ages of 13-15 increases the lifetime chances of being diagnosed with alcohol dependence.

Ultimately, Dr. Grant hopes her research will help identify those at risk for developing alcoholism before they’ve developed an alcohol addiction. By determining certain biomarkers in the brain and blood, she is hopeful that, eventually, we can caution people that they’re heading toward addiction before it begins.

“Prevention would be so much better for everyone because alcoholism affects more than just the individual,” Dr. Grant said.

Photo credit: Kathy West for the California National Primate Research Center

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