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NIAAA Newsletter

Dr. Kenneth Kendler
Mark Keller Honorary Lecture Series 2012

Photo of Dr. Kenneth Kendler

NIAAA acting Director Kenneth Warren presenting Dr. Kendler with a certificate
recognizing his 2012 Mark Keller Honorary Lecture.

Kenneth Kendler, M.D., delivered the 17th Annual Mark Keller Honorary Lecture on November 15, 2012, at the Clinical Center on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Kendler, a world-renowned expert on the genetics of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders, gave an insightful and sweeping lecture entitled, “The Genetic Epidemiology of Alcohol Use Disorders: A Current Perspective.”

Dr. Kendler set up his talk by saying he would attempt to “review the field of alcohol use disorders through the lens of genetic epidemiology—in one hour.”

Fueled by a lifelong interest in how the human mind works, Dr. Kendler pursues research on how genes and the environment contribute to the development of alcohol use disorders, as well as many psychiatric problems. He has helped develop critical statistical and developmental models to explain how specific genetic and environmental factors contribute to psychiatric and alcohol problems.

According to Dr. Kendler, alcoholism is among the most studied of the psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Studies suggest two intertwining developmental pathways to substance abuse disorders: one represents a genetic/temperamental pathway and the other reflects psychosocial adversity. At one point he indicated parental loss for youth could trigger or exacerbate significant substance abuse and alcoholism. 

Because psychiatric disorders run strongly in families, Dr. Kendler focuses on large-population twin studies to help explain the relationship between genetic and environmental influences on substance abuse disorders and other psychiatric disorders. He also examines how vulnerability to these various disorders emerges. His work is making it possible to identify the specific genetic variants that may be responsible for differences in vulnerabilities.

Dr. Kendler stated that “genes for substance abuse disorders and for alcohol intake can be substantially moderated by environmental exposures, especially those which either relaxed social constraints and/or permitted easy access to ethanol.”

In closing, Dr. Kendler mentioned new research methods on the horizon, including the transmission of drug abuse within sibling pairs or “sibships.” Siblings share genetics, while siblings whose birth years are close together share similar environmental influences more closely than those born further apart in years, presenting a new strategy to study genetic and environmental effects on alcohol use disorders.

Dr. Kendler received his medical degree at Stanford School of Medicine and trained in psychiatry at Yale University. His research and teaching home since 1983 has been Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where he currently serves as director of VCU’s Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. He also is the Rachel Brown Banks Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and professor of human genetics as well as co-director of the VCU Alcohol Research Center.

NIAAA established the Mark Keller Honorary Lecture Series as a tribute to Mark Keller, a pioneer in the field of alcohol research. Every fall, the series features a lecture by an outstanding alcohol researcher whose work makes significant and long-term contributions to our understanding of how alcohol affects the body and mind, how we can prevent and treat alcohol abuse and alcoholism, and how today's scientific advances can provide hope for tomorrow. NIAAA is pleased to present this series of scientific lectures to acknowledge the advances researchers are making in a wide range of alcohol-related research and to honor the memory of an individual whose pioneering research remains relevant today.