Alcohol use and impulsivity: an interview with Dr. Melissa Cyders

Alcohol is now the second most commonly used drug on a daily basis (behind cannabis), and abuse can have severe public health and economic costs. That is why researchers at Indiana University-Indianapolis have dedicated a significant portion of their work to studying alcohol use disorder. The Collegiate Commons interviewed Dr. Melissa Cyders, professor of psychology and director of clinical training for clinical psychology graduate students, to ask her more about her work connecting impulsivity and alcohol use disorder, and what it might look like for students who get involved in her Risk-taking, Impulsivity, Substance Use, and Cognition (RISC) lab. (Photo Credit: Dr. Melissa Cyders – L–R: Anna Garrison, Melissa Liu, Christiana Prestigiacomo, Melissa Cyders, Taylor Fox, Molly Jacobs, Lindsey Fisher-Fox).

“The RISC lab studies how impulsivity and its neurocognitive underpinnings influence a wide range of risk-taking behaviors, including alcohol and substance use,” according to Cyders.

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The lab conducts clinical studies.

One recent study involved researchers giving volunteers alcohol intravenously and asking them to avoid drinking any alcohol for a two-week period. They were also asked to complete survey questions, so researchers could better understand how “normal drinking patterns relate to changes in drinking over time.”

In many cases, surveys are given to better understand what makes individual participants different and how that impacts their response to treatment.

Brain-imaging is also an important part of the lab’s work.

The lab is not only concerned with the basic science of how alcohol impacts the brain, but also is concerned with leveraging that science to improve treatment and recovery for people all across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Cyders and other researchers also conducted research on alcohol consumption during the pandemic, which she talks about in an interview here.

The broader picture

The broader picture of Cyders’ research involves learning more about the connection between certain psychological traits and negative behaviors.

One such trait is impulsivity, or the tendency to react in a rash or extreme manner towards certain stimuli. This trait is associated with risk-taking. One particular aspect of impulsivity is called urgency, which is feeling of needing to react quickly to a particular stimuli.

“Although the experience of emotions is generally adaptive and serves to motivate behaviors, extreme emotions can be maladaptive for individuals, especially when the emotions lead one to behavior that does not address the precipitating need or event of the emotional experience,” said Cyders. “The tendency to act rashly in response to extreme negative or positive emotions is associated with a wide range of maladaptive behaviors, including alcohol use and abuse, risky sexual behaviors, binge eating (negative urgency only), gambling, compulsive cellular phone use, drug use, and nicotine use.”

Above and beyond urgency and impulsivity being associated with risky behaviors that do not actually resolve underlying emotional needs, the traits are also associated with various psychological disorders.

“Urgency is also highly represented across multiple different categories and diagnoses in the DSM-5 and many of these clinical groups have been characterized for their high level of urgency, including Borderline Personality Disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and Binge-Eating Disorder,” said Cyders.

Impulsivity and response to treatment

Cyders’ lab has found that those who score higher in their sense of impulsivity and urgency also do not respond as well to treatment for alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, so one of their research goals is to best design treatments to work around that.

Student research assistants are vital part of the lab

Cyders emphasizes that undergraduate students are an important part of that process.

“Undergraduate research assistants engage in a number of tasks, including literature reviews, data cleaning, coding, data collection, and interviews with participants,” she said. “[They also] learn about alcohol and substance use disorder, how to measure and test personality-based effects on risk-taking, and how to integrate quantitative and qualitative data.”

Working in her lab has prepared students for a variety of psychology-related careers and further education.

“Undergraduate students from my lab have gone on to PhD programs in clinical psychology, MS programs in quantitative psychology, MA programs in counseling psychology, and a plethora of careers in psychology and related fields,” she said.

Above and beyond gaining credentials to have a better chance of making it into a graduate program, Cyders emphasized that research experience was helpful because it was a way for undergraduate students to find out what type of research they are passionate about and might want to make a career out of.

“I recommend students get involved in treatment as early as possible and to try a number of different labs so that they can have a good idea about what type of research they would like to do in their career,” Cyders said. “I recommend that students think outside the box of graduate-immediately enter a graduate program. Many times, students benefit from a MS degree or from a couple of years as a study technician before applying – it can make student more competitive for graduate applications and help them clarify their goals and interests.”

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