Advancing research on alcohol abuse and dependence

May / June 2016 | Volume 15, Issue 3

Partially empty bottle of champagne sits on table next to empty cup
Photo by David Snyder for Fogarty/NIH

NIAAA funds research and fosters
collaborations to advance understanding
of alcohol's effects and to develop new
prevention and treatment strategies.

Alcoholic beverages are consumed in a variety of forms with wide-ranging cultural and local traditions for its use. However, alcohol abuse is a global problem that kills 3.3 million people a year, according to the WHO. To advance understanding of alcohol's effects and to develop new prevention and treatment strategies, NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) funds research and fosters collaborations among U.S. and international investigators.

Dependence and misuse have health, social and economic consequences for drinkers, their families, and society at large. A psychoactive substance, alcohol impacts every organ in the body and is linked to cancer, tuberculosis, injuries and 200 other conditions. Violence, crime, unemployment and absenteeism are other outcomes of excessive consumption. Globally, harmful use of alcohol is the top risk factor for death and disability among people aged 15-49.

"As the world's leading research institute on the causes, consequences, treatment and prevention of both alcohol use disorders and the wide-ranging health effects of alcohol abuse, NIAAA partners with scientists in both the developing and the developed world to advance our understanding of how alcohol acts on the brain and body to create pathophysiology," says NIAAA Director Dr. George F. Koob. "By joining forces we are able to move the science forward that will lead to important improvements in global public health."

NIAAA, which was established in 1970, uses its nearly $470 million annual budget to examine alcohol's effects across the lifespan and develop and test effective approaches to the prevention and treatment of these health effects. Neurobiology, genetics, pharmacology, epidemiology and other disciplines are applied to a range of issues - treatment of alcohol use disorders, alcohol-related liver disease, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), and alcohol's complex relationship with HIV/AIDS.

The Institute's Global Alcohol Research Program encourages international scientific exchange. To combat FASD, NIAAA supports research collaborations in several countries, including a wine-producing region in South Africa that has an unusually high prevalence of the condition.

The Institute also supports research that examines the relationship between alcohol and HIV/AIDS. Science has shown that alcohol use and abuse can contribute to the spread of the disease and affect treatment for infected patients. Studies to better understand the alcohol-HIV relationship are underway in sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV prevalence is high, and in Russia, where heavy drinking also occurs.

NIAAA works with scientists and health experts in other high-income countries. For example, a strong collaborative relationship has been developed with NIH's French counterpart, INSERM. The research partnerships between U.S. and French investigators span several areas of NIAAA's portfolio and French scientists contribute to some of their most productive consortia, such as the Integrative Neuroscience Initiative on Alcoholism. Additionally, NIAAA supports a "brain bank" at the University of Sydney, Australia that collects and distributes autopsied human tissue to facilitate neurological studies conducted throughout the world. This resource takes advantage of a unique population of people who abuse alcohol but no other substances.

In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), NIAAA works with local experts to identify some of the specific problems poorer individuals experience as a result of alcohol abuse and addiction. Lack of adequate health care, treatment programs, support networks, and safe roads and vehicles all increase the risk of illness and deaths related to unsafe levels of consumption. Individuals in LMICs also drink more home brew that can be inexpensive, associated with heavy drinking and contain unsafe and even lethal ingredients.

NIAAA helps build capacity in LMICs as a longtime partner on Fogarty training projects, and by sharing information and building collaborative partnerships through support of scientists' travel to conferences and meetings, and dissemination of research via its peer-reviewed journal, Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.

Because alcohol consumption generally increases with wealth, the health and social burden in developing economies is expected to grow, as noted in the WHO's most recent status report on alcohol and health, increasing the need for collaborative research on this global health challenge.

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