VCU receives $1.6 million grant to study pathways that lead to substance use disorders

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In one of the first projects to be funded under a partnership between the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Research Council of Norway, two Virginia Commonwealth University professors from the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics (VIPBG) will work with researchers at the University of Oslo to study the genetic and environmental factors in normal and abnormal personality that increase the risk of developing substance use disorders. The four-year study will also link new and existing data from the Norwegian Twin Registry to Norway’s national, population-based health registries to explore the trajectories from personality to substance use disorders to illness, disability and sick leave.

“A major strength of this project is that we’ll be able to determine how the genetic and environmental risk factors in normal, abnormal and pathological personality are related to substance use and substance use disorders, including various types of psychosocial dysfunction such as sick leave, illness and disability,” said Nathan Gillespie, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, VCU School of Medicine.

Gillespie is joined on the grant by Kenneth Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the VIPBG at the VCU School of Medicine.

Researchers will combine the registry information with questionnaires and interviews that have been collected since 1998 on approximately 2,000 twins. The study also will involve a new fourth wave of data that will be collected from the twins starting early next year.

“With the new fourth wave of data, you can really start modeling lifetime trajectories that individuals take,” Gillespie said of the twin studies that started when participants were young adults. “The results will significantly improve our understanding of how substance use disorders develop and progress over time.”

The major Norwegian collaborator on this project is Professor Ted Reichborn-Kjennerud, M.D. Ph.D., from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of Oslo and department director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH).

This project will extend an already successful collaboration between the two groups in the fields of genetic epidemiology in general, and substance use disorders in particular. Importantly, it will fill both theoretical and substantive gaps by clarifying the pathways to and from substance use and substance use disorders, which in turn will provide a framework for future prevention and intervention programs.

The study titled “Pathways from Normal and Disordered Personality to Substance Use Disorder” is supported by the National Institutes of Health grant 1R01DA037558-01A1.