Click to learn more about our many projects and awarded grants.
06/2021 - 02/2026
The goal of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) undergraduate research education program is to develop an intensive training and mentorship program during the academic year for undergraduates from underrepresented (UR) groups, in order to create a pipeline for increasing diversity in substance use research. VCU is a large, diverse university (30% of our students are from UR minority populations, over 30% are Pell grant eligible and the 2019 freshman class was 32% first-generation students) and offers a supportive environment in which to recruit and train UR scholars. Additionally, our university has a substantial NIDA/NIAAA award portfolio with a large team of interdisciplinary researchers studying substance use and related health outcomes.
Specifically, the program will:
Afterwards, monthly programming will continue for all program alumni to extend development opportunities and allow fellows to create and maintain cohesive support networks throughout their collegiate careers and assist them in the transition to graduate school. Program success will be evaluated across recruitment, student program completion, fellows' graduation from university, and their continued engagement in research and graduate school matriculation. Student learning outcomes will be assessed in conjunction with VCU's teaching and learning center. Our university's substance use research expertise, in addition to VCU's diverse student body and excellent infrastructure/support for undergraduate researchers, position this program to contribute significantly to increasing diversity in substance use research.
Link to NIH RePORT: 1R25DA051339-01A1
THE DEVELOPMENT OF ALCOHOL MISUSE AND RELATED PROBLEMS FROM ADOLESCENCE TO EARLY MIDLIFE
09/2005 - 05/2025
This competing continuation of our original Finnish Twin Studies R01 will expand our earlier work on gene-environment interplay in adolescence and young adulthood to characterize alcohol misuse into early midlife; to test hypotheses about risk and protective factors (accumulated across development) associated with trajectories of alcohol misuse from adolescence through early midlife; to examine the health-related correlates of these trajectories; and to translate and disseminate our findings to the public.
New data from older Finnish twin cohorts that suggest early midlife (ages 30-40) drinking is a far more robust predictor of long-term later-life drinking and consequences than drinking measured earlier in development. Our project will use data from two longitudinal population-based Finnish twin studies to understand the correlates and consequences of alcohol misuse from adolescence through early midlife:
This proposal is the next step in a program of research that has played a central role in delineating how genetic and environmental risk and protective factors impact the development of substance use and related behaviors.
Link to NIH RePORT: 2R01AA015416-12A1 (Salvatore)
USING THE GENETIC ARCHITECTURE OF SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS TO ADVANCE GENE IDENTIFICATION AND UNDERSTANDING OF PATHWAYS OF RISK
This project has two complementary goals:
Each of these areas represents critical steps in using genetic data to improve prevention, intervention, and treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs), and will lay the foundation as we move into an era of personalized medicine.
This project will:
Jointly, these analyses will advance our understanding of how genetic variation contributes to risk for substance use disorders.
This project is one of many that supports the Externalizing Consortium, launched in 2017 by Danielle Dick, Ph.D., in partnership with Philipp Koellinger, Ph.D. The Externalizing Consortium is focused on multivariate analyses aimed at gene identification for externalizing outcomes, and characterizing the risk associated with identified variants across development and in conjunction with the environment
Link to NIH Report: R01DA050721
ALCOHOL RESEARCH CENTER PROJECT 4 - HUMAN STUDIES TO IDENTIFY GENES AND CHARACTERIZE RISK PATHWAYS INVOLVED IN ALCOHOL RELATED OUTCOMES
04/01/2020 - 03/31/2025
The VCU Alcohol Research Center (ARC) is a collaborative effort aimed at identifying genes and gene networks associated with ethanol-related phenotypes by cross-species validation. ARC researchers work with data collected from humans, mice, rats, C. Elegans, and drosophila. EDGE Lab Director, Dr. Dick leads Project 4 of the ARC, which is using multivariate genomic analyses to advance gene identification for alcohol use outcomes, with bidirectional interactions with the model organism projects: genes identified in Project 4 are advanced for further study in the model organisms to characterize mechanism, and genes identified in model organism studies are examined across diverse human datasets in order to characterize behavioral effects in humans.
Link to NIH RePORT: 2P50AA022537-06 (Dick)
COLLABORATIVE STUDY ON THE GENETICS OF ALCOHOLISM (COGA)
The Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) is a tightly integrated and interdisciplinary project that involves participation of investigators from multiple sites spanning a broad range of expertise. The goals of COGA are to identify and characterize genes in which variations confer risk for, or protection from, the development of Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs) and related phenotypes; to understand the mechanisms by which these variants work at the molecular and cellular level; and to understand how genetic, environmental, and neurocognitive factors interact to influence the developmental trajectories of alcohol use and AUDs through an ongoing prospective study of at-risk individuals. COGA has assembled a unique sample of large, ethnically diverse families densely affected by AUDs and a set of comparison families, with rich phenotypic assessments in multiple domains: clinical, behavioral, neurophysiological, neuropsychological and environmental.
The study has three inter-dependent projects and three essential cores.
The three projects are each focused on different aspects of COGA's core aims:
The cores (Administrative Core, Data Management Core, and NIAAA/COGA Sharing Repository Core (NCSR)) provide critical support to each project, ensuring that key cross-study and cross site functions are centralized.
Through tight coordination of this interdisciplinary study, we will go from identifying genes, in which variants affect risk for AUDs and related phenotypes to understanding how they act at multiple levels, from molecular and cellular, to behavioral, neurophysiological, cognitive phenotypic, as a function of development. The delineation of the pathways and genes contributing to alcohol use and AUDs will impact treatment and prevention of AUDs in those at greatest risk.
Other sites (PIs): University of Connecticut (V. Hesselbrock); Indiana University (H.J. Edenberg, J. Nurnberger Jr., T. Foroud); University of Iowa (S. Kuperman, J. Kramer); SUNY Downstate (B. Porjesz); Washington University in St. Louis (L. Bierut, A. Agrawal, J. Rice, K. Bucholz); University of California at San Diego (M. Schuckit); Rutgers University (J. Tischfield, A. Brooks); University of Texas Medical Center in San Antonio (L. Almasy); Mount Sinai School of Medicine (A. Goate); Howard University (R. Taylor); Virginia Commonwealth University (D. Dick).
Link to NIH RePORT: U10AA008401 (Porjesz)
USING GENETICALLY INFORMED DESIGNS TO UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF PARENTAL DIVORCE/SEPARATION AND PARENTAL MARITAL DISCORD ON OFFSPRING ALCOHOL OUTCOMES
With this $1.4 million grant, Dr. Jessica Salvatore, along with other members of the EDGE Lab and external collaborators will study the mechanisms through which parental divorce, separation and marital discord influence offspring alcohol use disorder (AUD) and related outcomes. While previous studies have highlighted the correlations between parental divorce, separation, and marital discord and offspring AUD, most attribute them to disrupted parent-child relationships, the child's heightened feelings of emotional insecurity, and the limited ability of the offpsring to engage in prosocial interactions. What's missing from these explanations, are the role genetic factors play in these correlations.
The goal of this study is to address this missing link using data from two intergenerational, genetically-informative studies:
Guided by a bio- ecological framework, the aims of this study are to:
Broadly, through this work, the research team hopes to inform psychoeducation efforts to prevent alcohol misuse among families experiencing marital distress and delineate how genetic factors and close relationship factors come together to influence the onset, persistence, and discontinuity of alcohol misuse.
NIH Report: R01AA028064
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY GUIDED RESEARCH EXPERIENCES & APPLIED TRAINING PROGRAM (VCU GREAT)
Virginia Commonwealth University Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training (VCU GREAT) program aims to develop an innovative, intensive summer research experience in the study of alcohol and related behavioral health outcomes, for undergraduates from underrepresented (UR) groups, in order to create a pipeline for increasing diversity in biomedical and behavioral research. Specifically, VCU GREAT will:
Professional and career development, as well as research internships, extend beyond the summer program, affording support throughout the remainder of the fellow's academic career. Program success will be evaluated across recruitment, student program completion, and fellows' continued engagement in research and entrance into research-related careers. Finally, student learning outcomes will be assessed in conjunction with VCU’s teaching and learning center.
More information on how to get involved with VCU GREAT can be found HERE
Link to NIH Report: 5R25AA027402
DEVELOPMENT OF A NOVEL PERSONALIZED RISK ASSESSMENT FOR COLLEGE ALCOHOL PREVENTION
With this grant, we are developing and evaluating an on-line Personalized Risk Assessment (PRA) for college students that provides feedback about the individual’s specific core underlying risk factors for substance use, along with personalized recommendations and resources. The project will capitalize on foundational work from our unique, on-going university-wide research project (Spit for Science; S4S), in which >12,000 students (~70% of five years of incoming freshmen thus far) are being followed longitudinally with surveys assessing substance use and related factors across the college years. From these data we have identified risk factors most strongly related to college students’ substance use,and have developed an associated research center that brings together S4S researchers with university administrators and student affairs personnel to translate this research into enhanced university programming and policy.
Making use of this extant collaborative network, we will
College represents a unique opportunity to intervene and have positive life-course altering health benefits for a significant, and increasingly diverse portion of the population.
Link to NIH Report: 1R34AA027347
GENETICS, ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS, AND ALCOHOL MISUSE IN EMERGING ADULTHOOD
The scientific objective of this funded grant is to examine how alcohol dependence genetic predispositions influence pathways to emerging adulthood (ages 18-29) relationship quality and partner selection, and how characteristics of one’s relationship and partner further shape trajectories of alcohol misuse. The central hypothesis is that gene-environment correlation (rGE) and gene-environment interaction (G x E) processes contribute to these pathways and trajectories. Our approach leverages novel training in bioinformatics to characterize aggregate genetic risk for alcohol dependence by creating biologically refined polygenic scores. We will then use biologically refined polygenic scores to test gene-environment interplay hypotheses in two NIAAA-funded genetically informative prospective longitudinal studies of emerging adults: Spit for Science and the Project Alliance 1 (PAL-1) Relationship Study.
The three aims of this work are to:
This research is significant because it fills a critical need for studies of gene-environment interplay for alcohol misuse and romantic relationship factors in emerging adulthood, which is the period of highest risk for the development of alcohol use disorder.
Link to NIH Report: 5K01AA024152
Click to learn more about our past projects and awarded grants.
GENES, ENVIRONMENTS & INTERVENTIONS: UNDERSTANDING AND ADDRESSING ALCOHOL MISUSE
This goal of this project is to develop an interdisciplinary program of research aimed at advancing our understanding of how genetic influences impact the development of alcohol use disorders by integrating findings across twin studies, gene identification projects, and longitudinal, community-based samples. The overarching aims that characterize this program of research are (1) to characterize how genetic and environmental influences impact alcohol use and related outcomes across development; and (2) to characterize how prevention/intervention programs can interrupt risk pathways for substance use outcomes, and the extent to which the effectiveness of prevention/intervention varies as a function of genetic predispositions.
Multiple funded projects contribute to these overarching aims:
Link to NIH Report: K02AA018755 (Dick)
GENE-ENVIRONMENT INTERPLAY IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ALCOHOL USE AND RELATED PROBLEMS (FINNTWIN)
Many people begin to consume alcohol and establish drinking patterns during adolescence, making this an important developmental period for alcohol researchers to study. Both drinking initiation and establishment of drinking patterns are influenced to varying degrees by genetic as well as environmental factors. Using twin studies conducted in Finland and other countries, researchers have analyzed the specific genetic and environmental influences as well as the gene–environment interactions that shape drinking behavior in adolescence. These studies indicate that drinking initiation is determined primarily by environmental influences, whereas the establishment of drinking patterns is determined mostly by genetic factors, which themselves are subject to moderation by the environment.
Members of the EDGE Lab are currently applying for a competing renewal of "Gene-Environment Interaction in Adolescent Alcohol Use" (R01AA015416), a new investigator research grant that used data from a longitudinal, population-based Finnish twin study to characterize the extent and nature of gene-environment interactions on substance use and externalizing behavior across adolescence. This application, prepared by a team of investigators from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Helsinki, and Indiana University, has three specific aims:
Together, these analyses will advance our understanding of how genetic and environmental influences come together to contribute to substance use patterns during the high-risk young adulthood developmental phase.
In collaboration with Richard Rose (Indiana University) and Jaakko Kaprio (University of Helsinki).
Link to NIH RePORT: 2R01AA015416 (Dick)
UNDERSTANDING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN BEHAVIORAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH, CO-CURRICULAR ENGAGEMENT, AND STUDENT SUCCESS
Increasing student success is central to the VCU mission and Quest for Distinction strategic plan. At its simplest level, student success involves academic performance and graduation; at a more holistic level, student success also involves student well-being, which is directly related to positive life outcomes, as emphasized in the recent Gallup report on higher education Great Jobs, Great Lives.
Through the Spit for Science project (spit4science.vcu.edu), we enrolled >12,000 students, and followed them longitudinally with surveys each spring in order to study student outcomes across the college years. In these surveys we collected information on diverse outcomes, including substance use, depression, anxiety, smoking, eating, family/friends, stressors, sleep, and general health and well-being, with the content collaboratively generated by a team of faculty across the university with diverse expertise related to behavioral and emotional health. Importantly, we obtained permission to link this vast amount of self-report data to university level data. This allowed us a unique opportunity to study the connections between student behavioral and emotional health, university engagement in activities and programs, and academic outcomes, such as grades and graduation.
Questions we explored with this grant included: How are student behavioral and mental health outcomes (stress, anxiety, depression, substance use, etc.) associated with academic performance and retention? Does university engagement (co-curricular activities and support services) modify these associations? How does use of Recreational Sports facilities and programs contribute to students’ outcomes? When looking at the merged data in totality, what are the strongest predictors of retention? Do these differ for different classes of students (e.g. first generation students, women, minorities, etc)?
INTEGRATING GENETICS, BRAIN IMAGING AND PHENOTYPIC SUBTYPES IN BINGE DRINKERS
With this grant we explored the underlying biological differences between exernalizing and internalizing binge drinkers. To test the hypothesis that these two subtypes of binge drinkers are characterized by biological differences and that differences in brain activation mediate the effect of genetic variation on the phenotypic subtype, we used a large (N~8,000) genotyped young adult sample (NIAAA - R37AA011408, PI Kenneth Kendler) to conduct a series of genotypic analyses assessing differences in common variants, genetic pathways, gene networks, and rare variants between the externalizing and internalizing subtypes. In a subset of these binge drinking young adults (N=40), brain activation was measured on tasks assessing behavioral inhibition, reward sensitivity, and emotion reactivity. We used these measurements to test whether variation in brain activation on these tasks mediates the relationship between genetic risk and binge drinking subtype.
Link to NIH RePORT: 1F31AA024380 (Cooke)
SPIT FOR SCIENCE: THE VCU STUDENT SURVEY
Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey (VSS) is an effort to understand how genetic and environmental factors come together to contribute to the development of problems associated with the use of alcohol and other substances and emotional health. We aim to understand how genetic variation, in conjunction with environment factors, contributes to differences in the use of alcohol and other substances, and emotional health. From 2011-2015, for each new freshman cohort, we obtained a completed questionnaire early in the fall of their freshman year and a saliva collection for DNA. Then we obtained a second questionnaire in the spring of their freshman year. Then, for every subsequent year of their college career, we attempted to obtain a follow-up questionnaire in the fall. This included those who remained active students and those who dropped out or eventually graduated. The questionnaire asked about the student’s personality and behavior, as well as information on family, friends, and experiences growing up.
Multiple spin-off studies have been and continue to be conducted based on the richness of the Spit for Science data.
In collaboration with Kenneth Kendler, support for this project was provided by 5R37AA011408 (“A Longitudinal Study of Genes, Environment and Alcohol Misuse in College Students”) and through institutional funding. The 6 specific aims of the NIH grant were:
Link to NIH RePORT: 5R37AA011408 (Kendler)
INTEGRATING RESEARCH, COURSEWORK, AND TECHNOLOGY TO CREATE A CULTURE OF WELLBEING AT VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY
We designed, implemented, and assessed a university-wide program that integrated research with coursework and programming to create a whole-person educational experience that emphasized wellbeing as a core component of student success. We did this through two key avenues: (1) implementation of a campus-wide campaign focused on behavioral and emotional health and wellness via digital and traditional methods, and (2) development of a core course focused on behavioral health and wellness, that drew from the faculty research expertise that exists in this area across VCU, to integrate into the core curriculum.
We collected data from the incoming freshman class during the fall and spring semesters of both years of the project, and compared them with extant data collected prior to implementation of the project, in order to assess the effectiveness of the campaign [implemented year 1] and the coursework [implemented year 2] on impacting the wellbeing and academic success of our students. This project built upon a unique university-wide longitudinal research project at VCU focused on understanding substance use and emotional health among college students (Spit for Science; spit4science.vcu.edu), which enrolled >12,000 students, who completed on-line surveys in the fall of their freshman year and then every spring thereafter. Through this highly visible, university-wide effort, we have created a community of faculty from multiple departments across the university who conduct research in the area of behavioral and emotional health and wellness, and developed connections between faculty researchers and faculty/staff/administrators involved in health and wellness programming and policy at the university. This project represented the next step in engaging the broader university community (both students and additional faculty/staff around the university) in an effort to have behavioral and emotional health and wellness at the center of the university mission.
In collaboration with Aradhana Sood, Charles Klink, Barry Falk, Curtis Erwin, Linda Hancock, Gardner Campbell.
For more information on how we promote behavioral and emotional health among young people through the integration of research with coursework, programming, and policy, visit the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE) website.
DRINKING MOTIVES IN INTERNALIZING AND EXTERNALIZING PATHWAYS TO ALCOHOL MISUSE
The aim of this project was to utilize drinking motives as intermediate phenotypic measures to investigate genetic and environmental factors contributing to the hypothesized diverging internalizing and externalizing pathways to alcohol misuse in a prospective, longitudinal sample of college students. Mixture modeling approaches identified distinct internalizing and externalizing subgroups with both quantitative and qualitative differences in traits/symptoms. The externalizing subgroup had a broader risk profile and elevated levels of both types of drinking motives, while the internalizing subgroup had specifically elevated levels of internalizing symptoms and negative reinforcement motives. Longitudinal analyses indicated stability of drinking motives throughout college and differential associations between positive/negative reinforcement motives and internalizing, externalizing, and alcohol misuse measures. Cross-lagged structural equation models pointed to a causal direction of effect of positive reinforcement motives on alcohol misuse. Finally, a series of genetic association analyses identified some promising genes and genetic variants underlying drinking motives and internalizing psychopathology, though their genetic etiologies remain largely inconclusive.
The results of this project tie together several parallel lines of research on alcohol misuse and in the broader psychiatric genetics field. Findings support the existence of distinct, though not wholly separate, internalizing and externalizing subgroups, and suggest that the intermediate mechanisms of drinking motives are a valuable tool through which to understand these heterogeneous pathways to alcohol misuse.
Link to NIH RePORT: 1F31AA024378
DEVELOPMENT, ECOLOGY, AND PREVENTION OF ADULT ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR (PAL1)
This program of research tested genetically informed ecological models of the development of alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and dependence, antisocial behavior, and high-risk sexual behavior in adulthood, and examined the malleability of risk and protective processes as addressed in the intervention protocol of the Family Check-Up (FCU). In middle school, the original study sample had been randomly assigned to the FCU in an earlier iteration of the PAL 1 study. Intervention effects were found on drug use from age 11 through 14 years, and long-term intervention effects were observed with respect to AOD use in late adolescence. These effects were found to extend to ages 23–24. DNA from this sample was collected and analyzed, and the study tested genetically informed ecological models of adaptation and maladaptation from early adolescence to adulthood.
In collaboration with Thomas Dishion (PI, Arizona State University).
Link to NIH RePORT: 2R01DA007031 (Dishion)
PATHWAYS TO ALCOHOL USE DISORDERS IN ALSPAC: A GENETIC-DEVELOPMENTAL STUDY (ALSPAC)
Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs) emerge from diverse genetic and environmental risk factors acting through a range of complex developmental pathways. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) provided a combination of sample size, representativeness, and sufficiently frequent and detailed assessments over the requisite age range to provide a realistic opportunity to disentangle these intricate etiologic pathways. Beginning with over 13,000 pregnant mothers ascertained around Avon England, the ALSPAC project has conducted detailed follow-ups of this sample for over 20 years.
The research from this funded grant, conducted by a team of investigators from Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Bristol, had three specific aims in the ALSPAC cohort:
In collaboration with Glyn Lewis (University College London) and Matthew Hickman (University of Bristol).
Link to NIH RePORT: 1R01AA018333 (Dick/Kendler)