WILMINGTON — A psychology professor and researcher at UNCW was just awarded nearly $380,000 to study alcohol abuse among Wilmington teenagers.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded the grant to Kate Nooner, who chairs UNCW’s psychology department and conducts research at the university’s Trauma & Resilience Laboratory. Nooner has conducted similar research in the past, including a study that found there was a correlation between adolescent adversity and binge-drinking in 12- to 16-year-olds.
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“I’ve been trying to find ways to understand relationships between childhood adversity, or challenging things that happen in childhood and adolescence, and how those things can relate to substance use problems later on,” she said.
Nooner is now expanding on her past research. The current study, titled “Biomarkers of Binge Drinking in Maltreated Adolescents,” is already underway. Nooner will explore how traumatic situations — childhood abuse, domestic violence, death, divorce — impact teenagers’ brains and lead to higher alcohol consumption.
The project will include 85 participants aged 13 to 17. Half of the group transferred from her last study, while 40 more participants will be recruited from the community. Parental consent will be obtained for the teens to take part in the study, conducted over three years.
Once a year, the teens will be measured for adverse experiences, have their brain function tracked through electrode technology, and be surveyed on their drinking habits.
Nooner explained, while the underage participants will have to self-report their behavior, the survey is done in private to promote honesty.
Parents will be asked to sign a consent form to keep their child’s information confidential. Each participant’s personal information will not be made public.
“I focused on alcohol use problems because alcohol is by far the most problematic substance,” Nooner said. “It leads to problems on many different levels throughout people’s lives.”
According to the CDC, there are approximately 79,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States. More than 700,000 Americans receive alcoholism treatment every day, although people can misuse alcohol without necessarily being alcoholic.
“The majority of alcohol use that occurs in teenagers is binge drinking,” Nooner said.
Binge drinking in adults is defined as four or more drinks during a single occasion for women, five for men.
“Binge drinking is really drinking enough alcohol in an interval such that your blood alcohol is no longer at the legal limit,” Nooner said. “It can be below four or five drinks for many younger people, or for someone who’s smaller.”
Binge drinking increases with each adolescent year, peaking at 21, Nooner said. According to her research, 17% of adolescents report having an episode of binge drinking by their senior year; that number nearly doubles to 35% by age 21.
Nooner noted binge drinking is associated with higher rates of sexual assaults, accidents, drinking and driving, and blackouts. Not only can it impact safety, but it can also trigger criminal penalties. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has issued more than 70 underage drinking citations this year.
Teenagers are more prone to binge drink because they consume alcohol in secret settings, often without measuring amounts, Nooner said. What one thinks is a single cup of booze could actually be multiple servings, which leads to teens, already smaller in body mass, to feel the effects of alcohol quicker.
“And you can probably understand that if you can’t operate a vehicle, actually, there’s some very toxic things that are happening in your brain and body,” she said.
Much research has been done on the effects of trauma on the brain: studies show certain parts of the brain could be less effective when exposed to trauma, affecting how the brain processes threats, memories and emotions.
In a previous study, in collaboration with other researchers, 12- to 14-year-olds reported less self-capability to resist the temptation of alcohol if they had higher levels of neglect.
Nooner explained maltreatment can reduce a teen’s ability to make protective decisions.
“Teens drinking behavior tends to be kind of impulsive and a lot,” Nooner said. “When you’ve had more adversity, parts of your brain that are better at impulse control [and] regulating just your calm, alert state are not doing quite as well.”
The study will provide more information on the correlation between adversity and binge drinking for a slightly older population than Nooner has studied before. The researcher conducts the study surveys on a diverse population to ensure results can be helpful for everyone.
“One thing that’s common research is that youth who are from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds and certain races and ethnicities are less likely to be involved in research,” Nooner said. “And so this research is specifically making sure it targets everyone.”
While binge drinking does not affect certain demographics disproportionately, Nooner said it does impact them differently.
“I think that something that we see for example is just kind of layering impacts of different challenges that people may experience,” Nooner said.
Nooner said the research helps target a range of adversities — no one size fits all. She hopes the study will help organizations and programs better tailor binge-drinking prevention and intervention methods.
“Maybe we can do some targeted mindfulness exercises, or maybe we can teach some impulse-control skills, to not even necessarily saying this is targeting substances, but just saying, ‘Hey, these are useful for life,’” Nooner said.
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