College drinking and frats – A match made in alcohol heaven?

contributing author: Gacia Tachejian

animal-houseIf you asked college students in America what goes on at a Fraternity or Sorority party they would tell you that drinking alcohol is a major component. The movie Animal House made heavy college drinking a well known fact decades ago, and research backs it up.

Studies have consistently shown that the highest rates of heavy alcohol use and alcohol disorders occur in the college-age population. But who’s to blame? Although heavy alcohol use has been documented within Greek organizations, the question of whether the Greek environment fosters substance use or whether heavy substance users chose to be in Greek environments has not been researched until now.

In order to find out whether the Frats/Sororities were the main influence for heavy alcohol use or if individuals joining the Greek organizations were simply heavier alcohol abusers researchers recently collected data from 3,720 pre-college students who were then followed for the 4 years of college they enrolled in (talk about a lot of work).

Of the almost 4000 participants there were students who joined the Greek environment and those who didn’t. Also, there were students who were late joiners and students who joined but withdrew before they graduated. After looking at all the different categories, one thing was apparent:

Students, who at any given period were part of a fraternity or a sorority, drank more alcohol and had more negative, alcohol-related consequences while being a member of a Greek organization. Also, once they deactivated, those participants drank less and had less drinking-related consequences.

The real issue as to why this is so important has to do with the consequences of alcohol use. Problems like drinking and driving (and possible DUI arrests), alcohol abuse, alcohol poisoning, and violence are a serious problem among college students. Apparently, Greek Environments make these consequences more likely.

It’s important to note: If the only finding her was that participants in the Greek system drank more alcohol or were more likely to drink alcohol at all that would be one thing (this findings was also true here by the way), but the fact that they were also more likely to have negative consequences associated with their drinking suggests that interventions might be useful within this college-environment.

Something to think about next time you’re bored on a Thursday night…

Citation:

Park, Aesoon, Sher, J., Kenneth, S., & Krull, L., Jennifer (2008) Risky Drinking in College Changes as Fraternity/Sorority Affiliation Changes: A Person – Environment Perspective. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 22, No. 2, 219-229.

Teen learning exaggerates rewards – Bad decisions and brain development

Teens tend to make some seriously stupid decision (including teen drinking and driving), at least when compared to younger kids and older adults. We’ve all heard that brain development during that part of life plays a role in this but the question is: What exactly about brain development makes teens more risky?

There are a number of options – 1) Teens could have less control over all aspects of their behavior as their prefrontal cortex finishes developing, 2) Teens may be over-sensitive to rewards, putting too much emphasis on the positive value of stimuli they’re exposed to, or 3) Teens might just be less sensitive to the negative consequences of their action, which lets them take risks others just wouldn’t.

A somewhat recent study coming out of UCLA (and I just have to congratulate my colleague Jessica Cohen for getting a 1st author Nature paper!) suggests that at least to some extent, oversensitivity to positive reward-signals may be the answer and brain development has a lot to do with it. Continue reading “Teen learning exaggerates rewards – Bad decisions and brain development”

Is anonymity the final shame frontier in addiction?

I’m a drug addict and a sex addict, and as far as I’m concerned, staying anonymous let’s me remain buried in shame, and a double life, that keeps me always one step ahead of those close to me. Did I say too much? Did I give away my secrets? None of those  questions matter when everyone knows everything there is to know about you. For a disease couched in anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior, there’s very little that can be more triggering.

The difficulty of confessing addiction

Obviously I’m not naive to the consequences of confessing to others, and I’ve had a few very uncomfortable conversations that ended in people losing my number or superiors telling me they didn’t need to know. When it comes to the former, it’s their choice, and it might be a wise one, but having those who stay close to me know my truths keeps me safe by making me accountable and protects others from being hurt. And I can hurt with the best of them. Maybe that’s why when it comes to physician treated addicted physicians, there are no secrets, no anonymity, the family and employers are made part of the process. Some notable addiction providers (like Journey Healing Centers and others) have programs that explicitly involve the family in the treatment process as well. Getting the secrets out works to break away from the shame.

We’re only as sick as our secrets, even together

On an organizational level, I understand the need for anonymity to avoid having any specific member represent the group. But that logic only holds when everyone is told to remain anonymous. Otherwise, the entire group represents itself, which is, if nothing else, truthful. If one person slips, relapses, or goes into a homicidal rampage, it only makes the rest of us look bad if no one knows that millions others are “the rest of us.”

Over and over I hear people talk about the secret of their addiction and the lies they have to tell to cover up their shameful acts. Unfortunately, that only contributes to the stigma of addicts and makes it all the more difficult  to get some perspective on the actual problem: We do things we don’t want to over and over regardless of how much they hurt us or those around us

If you’ve read anything on this site, you know that I believe in many factors that contribute to addiction, including biology, environment, experience, and their interactions. Still, when it comes down to it, the misunderstanding of addiction is often our number one problem. And anonymity does nothing to reduce that misunderstanding.

How we can make a difference

Media portrayals only exacerbate the problem as they show us stories of addicted celebrities who are struggling but then leave the story behind before any recovery occurs. That way we only get to see the carnage but have to look pretty hard to see anything more.

But we can change all this with a small, courageous, action. We can let those around us know that we’re addicts, that we’re doing our best to stop our compulsive behavior and that we want them to hold us accountable. If we slip, we can get back up because we don’t compound the shame of a relapse with lies we tell, and those around us know that even a relapse can be overcome because they’ve seen those examples over and over in all the other “confessed” addicts around.

It’s time to leave the addiction “closet” and start living. We may not be able to change who we are easily, but we can change the way we go about living and make it easier on ourselves and on others. By breaking our anonymity, we can help assuage our own shame and let everyone know that addiction is everywhere and that it can be successfully overcome.

Just a thought…

Obesity, drug addiction, and dopamine

Eating junk-food can be addictive, and apparently, it causes brain changes that look eerily similar to drug addiction. That’s the message not only from the rapidly fattening waistlines of Americans everywhere, but also from the Johnson and Kenny labs at the Scripps Institute.

Food and drug addiction

The idea that obesity is caused by a compulsive pattern of eating, and that there could be a similarity between such compulsive eating and drug addiction isn’t super new. In fact, Dr. Volkow from NIDA seemed to make research into this association her goal when taking  the helm of the addiction research kingdom.

When you think about it, the notion isn’t far-fetched: Drug addicts continue to take drugs, in increasing amounts, even though they’d often like to stop (at some point) and in the face of negative consequences and the common loss of other important life functions (like family, work, etc.). Obese individuals are quite the same, eating more and more food regardless of their desire to adopt a healthier diet and in-spite of ridicule, low self-esteem, and decreased functioning that often accompanies extreme weight gain.

The research by Johnson and Kenny examined whether exposure to the kind of high-fat, super high-calorie foods that floods the junk-food market are responsible for creating food-addicts in a similar way to drugs that alter the brain in ways that make stopping more difficult.

Dopamine, reward, and junk-food

The study took three groups of rats and gave them either the regular chow diet lab animals are used to or the worse kind of birthday party food: bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting and chocolate. You can imagine the party going on in the rat cages that got to eat that! Of the two groups that got to eat the crazy-fat food, one had unlimited access while the other got to binge for only one hour a day.

The bottom line: Only the rats that got unlimited access to the fat-party food developed compulsive eating habits that resulted in roughly twice the weight gain of the other two groups and the ability to continue eating even in the face of signals for punishment (a light that they were trained to associate with shocks).

When the researchers looked deeper, they found that the brains of these rats suffered a significant reduction in the density of a specific kind of dopamine receptor (D2) in a brain part known as the striatum, the same kind of reduction common in drug addicted people and obese individuals. This receptor type is often thought to be important for regulation of impulses, both physical and otherwise. It therefore makes sense that losing this type of function would cause uncontrollable eating or drug taking.

Are drug- and food-addictions the same?

While this research isn’t saying that compulsive eating, or obesity, are the same as drug addiction, it does strongly suggest that there are common mechanisms in both. More importantly, it reveals a common process that unfolds when over-exposure to the reward, in this case food, occurs. This tells us that there can likely be common pathways to these different addictive disorders, though whether any specific person ended up a food- or drug-addict because of this kind of process is still an open question. I wonder if we’ll see something like this with sex addiction soon…

Citation:

Johnson and Kenny (2010) Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature neuroscience, 13, 635-641.