Studying patterns of heavy alcohol use and life commitments in at-risk young adults

May 8th, 2012
A Wayne State University researcher believes a better understanding of risk factors for excessive alcohol use may one day help at-risk adolescents transition more quickly to healthier and more productive behavior patterns in young adulthood.

To further that understanding, Tim Bogg, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in WSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has received a three-year, $731,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. Through "A Longitudinal Study of Alcohol Dependence in Late Adolescence" he will investigate the influences of conscientiousness-related personality traits, cognitive ability and social investment on patterns of excessive alcohol use over time. He also will examine how specific brain regions might play a role in reward-seeking behaviors.

Recent decades have given rise to what Bogg calls "extended adolescence," an increasingly longer time span when many young people begin making personal and social investments in their education, careers and personal relationships. Such commitments can be affected by excessive alcohol use and related problems, such as drug use, conduct or antisocial personality problems. Research has shown that people with such problems tend to display reduced self-control, responsibility, intelligence, short-term memory, and ability to successfully shift attention.

The social investment hypothesis Bogg will test holds that individual differences in development during late adolescence and young adulthood are influenced by participating in and committing to normative social roles. Meeting expectations of roles such as college student, employee or romantic partner leads to positive reinforcements that reward more controlled, plan-oriented and reliable behaviors and tendencies.

His current study extends his work at Indiana University, where he earned his doctoral degree in 2006, which also investigated such associations.

"Here we're looking at whether commitment to school, work or a romantic relationship predicts, decreases or even buffers against problems for people who, through personality or reduced cognitive capacity, might be at risk for excessive alcohol consumption," Bogg said.

Over two and a half years, researchers will examine patterns of change associated with social investment. The study also will track the interaction of brain activity and personality traits over time — something very few researchers have tried, Bogg said.

A subset of subjects representing a full spectrum of alcohol consumption will complete a computerized balloon inflation task to examine reward-seeking cognitive control. The task requires subjects to decide whether to continue inflating a balloon based on an increasing wager amount. As in real life, the balloon can be overinflated and explode, resulting in a lost wager.

During the task, a magnetic resonance imaging scanner will be used to look at the medial prefrontal cortex of subjects' brains, an area thought to be involved in risk and reward appraisal, as well as performance monitoring, which involves updating future responses based on past outcomes.

"The idea is to see whether there are differences in brain activity depending on alcohol consumption and related levels of conscientiousness, social investment and cognitive ability," Bogg said. "We're also trying to see if we can predict change. The real question is, how do these things influence each other over time?"

The amount of engagement or involvement in normative roles might act as a buffer against alcohol abuse or dependence, he said. Many Wayne State students tend to have more outside commitments than participants in his previous study, and Bogg expects that to be reflected in the results.

The current study also aims to use the data to develop interventions that can help foster maturation by increasing normative social investment. Such interventions could last eight to 10 weeks and include a social cognitive psychology principle called "implementation intentions."

For example, Bogg said, when a student is tempted to go out on a Thursday night before an exam on Friday, that student can be taught to develop their own concrete and specific alternatives, such as planning and committing to study with a friend at a library or cafe.

Interventions also could involve inducements for social investment by clarifying individuals' goals and providing accountability for those goals.

"Some students come in with a good understanding of what it takes to succeed; others with no tools at all," Bogg said, noting that drinking can interfere with poorly formed goals.

"Bringing those goals to the fore can have two benefits," he said. "One is curtailing excessive alcohol consumption; the other is helping the person achieve those personal goals that relate to educational development and career aspirations."

Emerging adulthood is a relatively new life stage in the developed world, Bogg said. It can be a time of personal exploration and trying different roles without many serious consequences. However, as economic conditions stagnate and the job market becomes more competitive, he believes shortening that period could prove useful for some people.

"If maturing out of excessive alcohol use is a developmental process, then providing a little inducement and training to help people further commit to a role in which they're already engaged might help push them toward healthier drinking patterns and increased psychological maturity."

Provided by Wayne State University

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