Science Symposium at NIH Commemorates 50 Years of Advancing Alcohol Research

An image of headshots of eight people around text that says, “50 years. Saving lives through cutting-edge research.”

The year 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Created in 1970, NIAAA is the world’s largest funder of alcohol research—supporting innovative basic, translational, and clinical research to advance the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and alcohol-related problems across the lifespan. With its broad research portfolio, NIAAA focuses its work on health topics that touch the lives of almost every family and community throughout the United States.

To celebrate this milestone anniversary, NIAAA hosted a scientific symposium, “Alcohol Across the Lifespan: 50 Years of Evidence-Based Diagnosis, Prevention, and Treatment Research,” on November 30 and December 1, 2020. Below is the list of presenters, their presentation titles, and a brief description of their presentations that were featured at the 2-day virtual event:

  • George F. Koob, Ph.D., NIAAA Director, “Celebrating 50 Years of Alcohol Research: Advances, Challenges, and Priorities”

    Despite much progress in alcohol research over the past 50 years, challenges remain. These challenges include addressing interactions between AUD and co-occurring mental health conditions, implementing targeted interventions to reduce alcohol misuse among women and senior adults, closing the AUD treatment gap, and tracking the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol misuse, treatment, and recovery. The COVID-19 pandemic could further exacerbate outcomes of alcohol misuse, particularly for individuals who drink to cope with loneliness or stress related to the pandemic.

  • Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., Columbia University, “Age, Period, and Cohort Effects in Alcohol Use in the 20th and 21st Century: Implications for the Decades to Come”

    Alcohol consumption has varied across the United States throughout time, and in particular the cohorts born in the late 1970s and early 1980s have evidenced greater alcohol consumption in adulthood than others. These increases in alcohol consumption in adulthood have been greater among women than men, leading to gender convergences in drinking as well as in consequences of heavy alcohol consumption. Increases in drinking among adult women have been concentrated among those with the highest socioeconomic position and education, suggesting shifting social sanctions around alcohol use. The next decade of alcohol-related research and intervention will need to contend with the dynamic changes in the epidemiology of alcohol use and consequences.

  • Marc Schuckit, M.D., University of California San Diego, “AUD Risk, Diagnoses and Course in a 35-year Prospective Study Across Two Generations of 453 Families: Implications for Prevention”

    This presentation reviewed key findings from the NIAAA-sponsored, 35-year San Diego Prospective Study of two generations of subjects, with more than 1,500 individuals from 453 families. The study identified a genetically influenced low level of response (low LR) to alcohol that was apparent before the development of AUD and that predicted a high risk for future heavier drinking and alcohol problems. The every-5-year prospective evaluations of the original subjects and their offspring also identified environmental and attitudinal characteristics that operated in concert with the low LR to predict AUD risk, and used that information to decrease AUD risk in new groups of adolescent drinkers with low LR by teaching them how to modify those environmental and attitudinal mediators of risk.

  • Susan Tapert, Ph.D., University of California San Diego, “Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain: What We’ve Learned and Where the Data Are Taking Us”

    Rates of binge drinking increase substantially during adolescence, as the brain is continuing to develop. Data suggest that the brain appears vulnerable to the effects of repeated binge drinking during adolescence, evidenced by relative reductions in memory and cognitive performance, enhanced cue reactivity, accelerated gray matter decline, and attenuated white matter growth. Future longitudinal studies will show whether these effects reverse with reductions in alcohol intake.

  • Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., Yale School of Medicine, “Alcohol’s Dark Side: The Role of Stress Neurobiology in Risk of and Recovery from Alcohol Use Disorder”

    This presentation described the effects of binge alcohol and chronic heavy alcohol use on stress biology and brain stress and motivation pathways. These progressive brain and body alterations with binge and heavy alcohol use result in greater emotion and stress dysregulation, mood and anxiety symptoms, higher alcohol craving, and compulsive alcohol intake. Treatment options to reverse these changes and improve alcohol use outcomes were also discussed.

  • Barbara Mason, Ph.D., Scripps Research, “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Current and Future Medications for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder”

    NIAAA is engaged in supporting the development of multiple pharmacotherapies to treat AUD. This presentation encompassed a review of currently available medications to treat AUD and future drug targets. Methods to expedite new AUD pharmacotherapies were discussed, from repurposing of drugs approved for other uses, through early phase evaluation of therapeutic potential in a human laboratory model of AUD, to later phase multisite clinical trials.

  • Michael Charness, M.D., Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, Harvard Medical School, “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Awareness to Insight in Just 50 Years”

    Fetal alcohol syndrome was first described shortly after the creation of NIAAA, and the understanding of this disorder evolved with the guidance and support of NIAAA. A half century later, NIAAA-funded research has led to important insights into the epidemiology, etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

  • Vijay Shah, M.D., Mayo Clinic, “Hope through Discovery—Alcohol-Associated Liver Disease”

    The impact of alcohol-associated liver disease on societal disease burden is increasing, especially in younger and female demographics. Increasing attention is directed towards the need for AUD therapy for individuals with alcohol-associated liver disease, although many barriers impede progress in this area. Advances in digital technology, and recognition at a society level that destigmatization of this patient population benefits everyone, should pave the way for clinical progress in this area.

These presentations covered the state of the science in a broad range of areas germane to NIAAA’s mission and included discussions of new research opportunities to continue advancing the field. Archived videocasts of Day 1 and Day 2 of the symposium are available on NIH Videocast.

“NIAAA has fostered tremendous scientific progress over the past five decades,” says NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D. “Each year brings still greater knowledge about how alcohol affects the brain and body, and how best to prevent and treat alcohol misuse.”

NIAAA also created a 50th Anniversary page on its website to highlight major events and accomplishments over its 50-year history.