Have you ever wondered why some people can drink in moderation, while others develop a lifelong dependency on alcohol? Researchers at VCU’s Examining Development, Genes and Environment (EDGE) Lab are attempting to answer that question by studying the combined, intersecting impacts of a person’s genes and environment on their behaviors. The lab studies alcohol use problems and other related health concerns through an interdisciplinary lens, which combines gene identification, behavior genetics, and developmental and clinical psychology to determine to what extent our actions are influenced by our genetic code and the environment in which we live.
Alcohol is the most widely abused substance on college campuses, where 1 in 5 students in the United States meet the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“It touches everyone’s life. It’s so prevalent that whether or not it’s something that you personally struggle with, almost everyone has a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, someone that they know that has struggled with this,” said Director of the EDGE Lab, Danielle Dick, Ph. D.
Using large datasets with genetic components like the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA), the EDGE Lab is trying to map which specific genes influence why a person develops problems with alcohol.
“We’re not blank slates, we’re all at risk for something, but we’re all at risk for different things. But those dispositions are not destiny. So, you might be genetically more at risk to develop substance use problems but it does not guarantee you will,” Dick said.
To understand how important genetic and environmental influences are on different complex outcomes, the EDGE Lab utilizes twin studies and compares the behaviors of monozygotic, or identical twins, to dizygotic, or fraternal twins that were raised in the same household.
“Until we have found all of the genes involved in something like substance use problems, which we’re still very far away from, this remains the only way to study, overall, how important our genetic influences are on an outcome, and how might that change as a function of the environment,” said Dick.
The EDGE Lab also studies how both genetic and environmental influences affect people at different periods in their lifetimes. They do this by incorporating longitudinal studies into their research, which follow and continuously survey participants throughout their development into adulthood. By applying their genetic findings to longitudinal developmental studies, they can map the pathways by which genetic risk manifests across development.
“What does someone who might be genetically at risk for substance use problems in adulthood look like as a young child or an adolescent? What kinds of environments reduce risk or, conversely, might exacerbate risk? We can ultimately use all that information to feed back into developing more tailored and effective prevention and intervention,” Dick said.
The lab’s most locally recognizable ongoing study, the Spit for Science VCU Student Survey, has over the last 7 years created an expansive database of de-identified student information, both genetic and behavioral, which is analyzed by more than 70 researchers from 27 different departments across the University. The findings generated by Spit for Science can then be used to inform programming to support student success at the university.
“There’s a misperception in research that people sit in their ivory towers and they study groups from afar and are really out of touch with what’s actually going on with the people that they’re studying. And that’s something that I’ve really appreciated about clinical psychology and about the EDGE lab: this really strong encouragement to get to know the community, to get to know the practitioners with the population that you’re working with, and to get to know the patients themselves. I see that as a really critical piece of my role moving forward,” said Zoe Neale, a graduate student in the EDGE Lab.
The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE) grew out of the Spit for Science Study, and works to promote behavioral and emotional health among young people through the integration of research into the college’s coursework, programming, and policy. “COBE is really a mechanism to create and grow those cross-campus collaborations in order to grow the research, and then, importantly, to connect the researchers with the other folks at the university who are involved in prevention, intervention, policy, programming,” said Dick.
“We really want to be leading the way in how we think about not only generating great research, but getting that research out – translating it so it can make a difference, and disseminating it back to the broader community,” Dick said.
Written by Megan Schiffres