One-on-One with Tier One: Dr. Clayton Neighbors

Dr. Clayton Neighbors

Dr. Clayton Neighbors

In the United States, alcohol consumption is a common occurrence. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states approximately 72 percent of men and 60 percent of women reported consuming at least one adult beverage in the past year. While greater than four or five drinks per day can be considered heavy drinking for adults, it is alarming that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 90 percent of all alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is in the form of a binge episode. According to the CDC, individuals between the ages of 12 to 20 years old consume 11 percent of the total amount of the alcohol consumed in the United States. As underage drinking contributes to 4,300 annual deaths and approximately 189,000 emergency room visits among this age group, methods to understand youth drinking patterns is imperative, particularly on college campuses. Dr. Clayton Neighbors, professor in the Department of Psychology, Director of Social Psychology, and Director of the Social Influences and Health Behaviors Lab at the University of Houston (UH), received a five-year $114,528 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop implicit measures to uncover the mechanisms that can predict hazardous drinking on college campuses.

What is your goal through this research? How will this grant help?

Most of the measures used to assess hazardous drinking are based on explicit self-reported alcohol consumption. Recent research has suggested that implicit measures, which aim to detect and report automatically associated or implied actions, uniquely predict hazardous drinking beyond measures that rely on self-reporting. These implicit measures offer new strategies to assess hazardous drinking that are less direct than asking people how much they drink. Typically, these measures are based on differences in reaction times to respond to alcohol-related images compared with non-alcohol related images. This grant will help improve our ability to assess hazardous drinking by refining implicit measures. Gaining a better understanding of implicit cognition underlying alcohol use will potentially offer new intervention strategies that can retrain implicit cognitive associations with alcohol.

How is hazardous drinking defined? How is it diagnosed?

We use the term hazardous drinking to refer to heavy alcohol use and negative alcohol-related consequences. Hazardous drinking has been operationally defined in multiple ways. A common definition of a hazardous drinking episode is exceeding four drinks on an occasion for women or five drinks on an occasion for men.

Is it a problem on many college campuses?

It is a major problem on almost all college campuses. In our studies, about 45 percent of students report having engaged in hazardous drinking in the past two weeks.

How does alcohol affect a student who participates in hazardous drinking?

Hazardous drinking is associated with numerous consequences including death, physical injury, sexual and/or physical assault, blackouts, legal trouble, property damage, sleep disturbance and academic failure.

Who is most likely to participate in hazardous drinking?

There are a number of characteristics associated with hazardous drinking. These include being male, membership in a fraternity or sorority, perceiving heavy drinking as more typical than it actually is, drinking as a way to cope with difficulties, and low endorsement of religious or spiritual values, among others.

Could developing measures to improve prediction have implications for interventions (therapy, counseling, etc.)?

There are direct extensions of this work to treatment interventions. If we can predict hazardous drinking reliably from implicit measures, we can begin to conduct experiments evaluating strategies for changing implicit measures, which should then reduce future drinking.

How is this study important to UH and the Houston community?

This research builds on existing ongoing alcohol prevention programs at UH. These include the IMAGE program offered by Health and Wellness, which was awarded two Model Program grants from the U.S. Department of Education and was developed by Dr. Gail Gillan, clinical professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. This research also adds to an ongoing NIH funded multisite trial, Project SNAP, which is being led by UH and evaluates social norms based interventions for heavy drinking students.

Neighbors is working in collaboration with consultant Dr. Reinout Wiers at the University of Amsterdam, and co-investigators Dr. Bethany Teachman at the University of Virginia, and Drs. Debra Kaysen and Jeanette Norris at the University of Washington (UW). Dr. Kristen Lindgren, associate professor in UW’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, serves as the project’s principal investigator.

For more information, visit the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston.  For information on the Social Influences and Health Behaviors Lab, visit their website.

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