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OHSU-led consortium wins $21 million grant to study alcoholism, stress

Consortium will continue studying mechanisms that link stress, anxiety, alcohol intake

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has funded a five-year, $21 million Integrative Neuroscience Initiative on Alcoholism grant to support a multi-site consortium led by an Oregon Health & Science University researcher.

OHSU will receive approximately $6.3 million over five years, funding projects in the laboratories of Kathleen A. Grant, Ph.D., head of neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) and professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine; and Betsy Ferguson, Ph.D., associate scientist in neuroscience at the ONPRC.

The consortium, Integrative Neuroscience Initiative on Alcoholism: Stress, Anxiety and Alcoholism, or INIAstress, extends a cross species approach in exploring neural mechanisms that link stress, anxiety and excessive alcohol intake.

Alcoholism affects millions of Americans, devastates families, compromises national preparedness, depresses economic vitality, and burdens the country’s health care systems. Untreated addiction costs America $400 billion annually and recent research indicates that alcoholism and alcohol abuse alone cost the nation’s economy approximately $185 billion each year, according to NIAAA-funded research.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism result from a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors, according to Grant and her colleagues in the consortium. Many aspects of an individual’s response to the environment activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and are therefore labeled as "stress." Much of the stress in modern society is a subjective state of anxiety, where competing goals generate conflict and activate brain mechanisms involved in arousal and attention. These stressful states are often seemingly relived by drinking alcohol and may be a primary factor in establishing excessive alcohol consumption.

“While there is a great deal of evidence supporting stress-alcohol interactions, less is known about how these interactions alter the brain at the molecular, cellular and systems levels to maintain excessive drinking and alcoholism — and why this addiction is so difficult to treat,” Grant said. “This consortium is tackling the larger picture of brain mechanisms that control alcohol consumption, the response to stress in these brain areas, and the reciprocal relationship between excessive drinking, the physiological state of stress and the subjective state of anxiety.”

The consortium’s main approach will be to characterize the genetic basis of key neural mechanisms in stress and anxiety in order to clearly assess individual risk for the development of alcoholism or to develop tailored therapeutic approaches to treating the anxious alcoholic.”

The grant represents the second competitive renewal for the INIA consortium, which is made up of 15 lead investigators from 10 institutions in the United States and Europe. The group received its initial round of funding in 2001. The other institutions involved are: Johns Hopkins University; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center; Medical University of South Carolina; Wake Forest University; Virginia Commonwealth University; Vanderbilt University; University of Sussex, England; and Institute of Neuroscience, Italy.

To date, the consortium has made significant scientific progress. Accomplishments include the publication of more than 300 articles on the topic of genetic and environmental components of alcohol-stress interactions; the production of unique, genetically altered, mice for addressing the role of key genes in stress, anxiety and alcoholism; a growing database of translational research linking findings from mice, non human primates and human beings; and supporting the inclusion of new investigators into the realm of alcohol research.

The NIAAA is one of the 18 institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health. It supports and conducts biomedical and behavioral research on the causes, consequences, treatment and prevention of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems.

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