Charting Recent Progress: Advances in Alcohol Research

Article excerpt

The Ninth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health summarizes recent findings from a wide range of alcohol-related research areas. This article provides an overview of the topics covered in the Ninth Special Report and highlights some of the recent findings revealed through the application of innovative research methods. Key words: research; AODE (alcohol and other drug effects); AODR (alcohol and other drug related) disorder; epidemiology; hereditary factors; environmental factors; brain; AOD use behavior; animal model; adverse drug effect; prenatal alcohol exposure; congenital anomaly; safety; economic cost of AODU (alcohol and other drug use); prevention of AODR problems; treatment; health services research; literature review; government agency

The Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health is updated and submitted to Congress by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) every 3 years. This important document summarizes recent advances in alcohol research and charts current progress toward preventing and decreasing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. As well as being submitted to Congress, the report is distributed throughout the country to researchers, educators, treatment specialists, and other professionals interested in the current state of alcohol research.

Alcohol research has greatly increased our understanding of the biological, environmental, and social factors that contribute to alcohol use, abuse, and dependence as well as alcohol's effects on both individuals and society. This diverse body of research-spanning disciplines that include biology, sociology, and economics-has advanced through the application of innovative research methods and techniques.

The Ninth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health, published in June 1997, focuses on research findings reported since the 1994 publication of the Eighth Special Report. In his introduction to the report, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Director Enoch Gordis explains how specific areas of alcohol research have advanced through the application of new theories and techniques. For example, the application of neuroscience to the study of drinking behavior and addiction has enabled researchers to learn more about alcohol's effects on the brain and to study the mechanisms of these effects in new ways.

This article briefly reviews the topics covered in the Ninth Special Report and highlights areas in which new research techniques are being applied. The remaining articles in this issue of Alcohol Health & Research World discuss how innovative research methods are being applied to specific areas of alcohol research, which may or may not be described in the Ninth Special Report.

EPIDEMIOLOGY

Alcohol epidemiologists collect and analyze data about the rates of alcohol use, abuse, and dependence as well as other alcohol-related problems, including morbidity and mortality. Using a variety of data sources, including alcohol sales reports, U.S. vital statistics, hospital records, and surveys, researchers track alcohol consumption rates and the problems that can occur with drinking.

Average annual alcohol consumption per person began to decline in the early 1980's and continued to drop through 1993, when it reached 2.25 gallons of alcohol-the lowest level recorded since 1964. National survey data also reveal increases in overall abstention rates and decreases in rates of heavy (i.e., five drinks on one occasion at least once per week) and weekly drinking. Factors thought to contribute to the decline in per capita consumption include less tolerant national attitudes toward drinking, increased societal and legal pressures and actions against drinking and driving, and increased health concerns among Americans.

Despite the declines in alcohol consumption, however, alcohol-related morbidity and mortality remain significant problems in the United States. …