New grant explores ties between alcohol abuse, genetics and romantic relationships

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Virginia Commonwealth University professor has received a roughly $750,000 grant to study the complex interplay between alcohol abuse, romantic relationships and genetic predispositions to alcoholism during emerging adulthood.

Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was awarded the five-year grant, “Genetics, Romantic Relationships, and Alcohol Misuse in Emerging Adulthood,” from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.

Salvatore, whose research focuses on how close relationships and alcohol misuse interface across development, particularly in the high-risk emerging adulthood period, recently discussed the new grant and how she hopes it will deepen our understanding of how genetic factors and close relationship factors come together to predict alcohol misuse.

What specifically are you hoping to find out with this study?

The goal of this grant is to understand how genetic predispositions for alcohol problems influence young adults’ pathways to romantic relationship quality and partner selection, and how characteristics of one’s relationship and partner further shape trajectories of alcohol misuse.

Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D.
Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D.

Why is it important to better understand the ties between genetic predisposition to alcohol and relationships among young adults?

Alcohol misuse reflects a complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences across development, and young adulthood is the highest-risk period for the onset of alcohol problems. Romantic relationships are a key environmental influence that comes “online” in young adulthood, and there is growing evidence that alcohol use and misuse are associated with relationship quality and the characteristics of one’s partner. To date, however, there has been little systematic work to understand how romantic relationship factors interface with genetic predispositions during this period.

How might your findings be used? Down the road, could your work have a practical application to young people — or others — who struggle with alcoholism?

This is a great question, and is often a topic of conversation in the Examining Development, Genetics, and Environment Lab and in the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute here at VCU. Scientists, including me, are often reluctant to make bold claims about how basic research findings can transform clinical practice. My hope is that the findings coming out of this work will underscore the potential for preventive interventions that promote positive, growth-enhancing romantic relationships in young adulthood. Many prevention programs for adolescents and young adults focus on reducing extremely negative relationship experiences, such as dating violence. I would like to shift that narrative so that there is also a place for promoting positive relationships with prosocial partners in young adulthood. Involvement in these types of relationships might be especially important and protective for people whose genetic predispositions put them at risk for things like substance use. In other words, even “ordinary” relationships can have extraordinary consequences for altering developmental pathways. The goal of this research is to begin to answer the questions of “for whom” and “under what conditions” relationships can change these pathways.

 Can you talk a bit about your methodology? How will you go about exploring this topic?

I will use anonymized data from two large, genetically informative studies, one of which is the Spit for Science project led by doctors Danielle Dick and Kenneth Kendler here at VCU. These longitudinal data sets include extensive information about participants’ romantic relationship experiences, gathered either from self-reports or observational couple interactions, as well as DNA data. What this allows us to do is examine how genetic predispositions for alcohol problems and close relationship factors come together to predict alcohol misuse.

What previous research has been conducted on this topic, and in what ways will your project build on it?

Different pieces of this puzzle have been studied before. For example, there are many studies on the genetics of alcohol, as well as several studies linking relationship outcomes with drinking. The goal of this project is to bring these methods and perspectives together to understand the interplay between genetic predispositions for alcohol misuse and close relationship factors during a period of the lifespan (young adulthood) that we know is high-risk for the onset of alcohol problems.

 How does this grant fit within your larger body of research?

This grant is a Mentored Research Scientist Award, and one of the main goals of these types of awards is to support the development of early career scientists. Thus, this grant gives me the opportunity to do advanced training to support my overarching aim of understanding how genetic factors and close relationship factors come together to predict alcohol misuse. I am lucky to have an excellent team of scientific mentors here at VCU, including doctors Danielle Dick, Kenneth Kendler, Mikhail DozmorovShaunna Clark and Aaron Wolen.


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