By Izabela Zaluska
Bruce Bartholow, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recently received two grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling $7.3 million.
The first study, funded by a $3.5 million grant, will explore what factors are important in the development of alcohol use disorder in young people. The other $3.8 million study looks to understand what pushes people to make riskier choices while drinking after turning 21 years old. Both grants are for five years.
Bartholow has three main research focuses: social perception, alcohol use and its consequences, and self-regulation.
He joined the department this past summer after 19 years at the University of Missouri and is excited about the opportunities at Iowa, including a named chair appointment and the potential to collaborate with faculty in the College of Public Health, Carver College of Medicine, and UI Hospitals and Clinics. Bartholow is the Ketchel Family Chair in Psychology.
“What I find is so great about Iowa is that it's rigorous but friendly,” Bartholow said. “People have high expectations of everyone doing their best and producing good work, but it's very collegial, too.”
First study looking at how alcohol use disorder develops
The focus of the $3.5 million Characterizing Alcohol Risks in Development (CARD) study is to better understand what factors are important in the development of alcohol use and heavy drinking in adolescents. This project will help researchers understand the causes of addiction and why some people are more vulnerable to it than others.
Bartholow is collaborating with psychological and brain sciences professor Bob McMurray on this project.
Alcohol use disorder is currently diagnosed based on its clinical presentation—the symptoms someone reports if they’re having issues related to alcohol. What’s lacking is a focus on how alcohol use disorder develops, Bartholow explained.
“Alcohol use disorder doesn’t just appear one day. … It’s known to be a developmental disorder in that it takes time to emerge and it usually starts in adolescence,” he said.
Young people ages 14 to 19 will be recruited for the study and assessed three times over 2.5 years. Bartholow’s team will look at how participants’ brains respond in various situations through a series of lab visits with electroencephalography (EEG), in addition to responses from questionnaires and behavioral tasks.
“The objective is to measure some things about them before they start drinking and then see what changes as they start getting more experienced drinking alcohol,” Bartholow said.
The team wants to get a broad sense of brain functioning among participants and then see how that functioning changes over time, how it relates to changes in alcohol use, and indicators of alcohol use disorder.
“There's just a number of really cool things we're going to be able to learn from this study that really no other study has been able to accomplish,” Bartholow said.
Second study focuses on perception of risk while drinking
The second study, a $3.8 million project, is meant to help researchers understand what factors push people to make riskier choices while drinking after they turn 21 years old.
The project will focus on rural residents and study how an individual’s perception of risk and ability to make safe decisions is affected after drinking. And it’s not the case that people are drinking more after turning 21 years old, Bartholow added.
“Increasing the drinking age to 21 has decreased the number of traffic fatalities related to alcohol, but no matter where you put that line—whether it's 19 or 21—as soon as people cross it, they tend to become much riskier in their drinking-related decisions. That's something we don't really understand,” Bartholow said.
For this study, the team will recruit 20-year-old participants who will complete a series of brain activity and behavioral assessments before turning 21 years old and again after their 21st birthday. Researchers will track the kinds of negative consequences the participants experience because of decisions they make while intoxicated, including getting arrested, being pulled over for driving under the influence, fighting, or breaking up with a significant other.
Focusing on rural residents is a unique aspect of the study because much of what’s known about the risks associated with drinking is based on college student samples, Bartholow said.
“But there are a lot of important differences, we think, between college students and similar age peers who don't go to college, so we want to start learning more about the drinking patterns and risk-taking patterns among rural individuals,” Bartholow added.
Learn more about Bartholow’s work and current research by visiting his lab website.