Scripps Research Institute Professor Cindy Ehlers has been awarded a prestigious $3.6 million MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the risk factors for alcoholism in Native Americans.
The five-year MERIT award will fund Ehlers' project to better understand alcohol dependence and alcohol-related problems in Native American Indians and to determine why some groups of Native Americans are at high risk for alcoholism by identifying key genetic and environmental variables.
Native Americans have historically experienced numerous problems with alcohol since its introduction into their society by European settlers. Although tribes differ with regard to the use of alcohol, Native Americans, as a group, have the highest alcohol-related death rates of all ethnic groups in the United States. However, how and why alcoholism is more prevalent in some Native American communities remains to be clarified.
"We've found there is a strong relationship between early underage drinking in Native American young people and their risk for alcoholism," Ehlers said. "The risk does not appear to be genetic. The new grant will give us the time to document whether exposure to alcohol in adolescence leads to specific and detrimental medical and psychological outcomes and to develop culturally relevant and sensitive ideas for treatment and prevention programs specifically tailored for these communities."
Ehlers said she also plans to investigate whether Native Americans have a unique clinical course of alcoholism or a specific pattern of other psychiatric disorders present with alcoholism that may also influence treatment.
Ehlers' previous work has done a great deal to dispel is the "firewater myth" that Native Americans are more sensitive to alcohol and they somehow metabolize alcohol differently. Her earlier studies showed that Native Americans do not have a difference in alcohol metabolism and in fact have a genetic resistance to the effects of alcohol so that they can drink significant amounts of alcohol and not feel as intoxicated, putting them at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers.
"Inherited factors can influence risk for alcoholism, including a less-intense response to alcohol," she said, "but genetic factors are mainly important through their interaction with the environment. Native Americans in the past have been exposed to a number of environmental factors including historical traumas such as loss of lands, relocation, and forced attendance at boarding schools, to name a few. We hope this project will allow the effects of these historical traumas as well as current environmental factors such as underage drinking to be explored and integrated with genetic factors in order to understand the larger picture of how alcoholism develops in this community."