NIAAA 40th Anniversary Symposium
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, NIAAA invited distinguished researchers from across the fields of alcohol research to participate in a symposium on October 4, 2010. Acting NIAAA Director, Dr. Kenneth Warren, opened the symposium by discussing the current breadth of alcohol research and the significant progress made over the past 40 years.
Forty years ago, little was known about alcoholism and heredity. At the symposium, Dr. Tatiana Foroud, Indiana University School of Medicine, described studies of twins raised apart from one another and how this helped confirm that family history and genes play an important role in the risk for alcoholism. Thanks to intensive research efforts, scientists have pinpointed a number of specific genes involved in alcohol dependence as well as their functions.
Neuroscience is another field that has seen considerable growth in the past 40 years. Dr. Edith Sullivan, Stanford University School of Medicine, described how alcohol use, both short- and long-term, can have serious effects on the structure of the brain and how it processes information, leading, in some cases, to severe mental disabilities.
Alcohol use and abuse often are intertwined with other co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder. Dr. Robert M. Anthenelli, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, described how some of these effects have been traced to the body’s responses to stress, responses that vary considerably between men and women.
The brain is not the only organ negatively affected by alcohol. Dr. Pranoti Mandrekar, University of Massachusetts Medical Center, summarized the latest findings on the effects of alcohol on the body, including the liver, heart, gastrointestinal system, and the immune system.
A common misperception from the past was that alcoholism was found primarily in middle-aged men. Dr. Raul Caetano, University of Texas School of Public Health, described research showing that alcohol dependence is found in people of all ages, both genders, and a variety of ethnicities and that the highest prevalence of dependence is found among those aged 18–24.
Dr. Michael Windle, Emory University, discussed the problem of underage alcohol use. Particularly troubling are the effects that alcohol may have on the developing brain. Dr. Jennifer Thomas, San Diego State University, described how the fetus is at risk for serious consequences when the mother drinks during pregnancy. Exposure to alcohol prenatally may result in varying degrees of physical, mental, and behavioral problems.
The broader effects of alcohol on society were addressed by Dr. Robert Voas, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who discussed how alcohol consumption is related to public safety. Research has helped to shape policies and laws that have had significant positive effects. These include raising the minimum drinking age to 21—a law that significantly decreased the number of traffic deaths among young adults—and drinking-and-driving laws that protect individuals of all ages across the Nation.
In closing, Dr. Warren thanked the speakers for their “truly outstanding presentations that directly demonstrated the explosion of the knowledge in the alcohol field over the past 40 years.”