A team of Virginia Commonwealth University scientists is encouraging incoming freshmen to spit. They're even offering students $10 to fill a test tube with saliva.
"We ordered lots of sugar cubes," jokes Ken Kendler, director of VCU's Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. Kendler is teaming with VCU associate professor Danielle Dick to lead a study that aims to uncover how genetic and environmental factors influence the development of substance abuse and emotional problems among college students.
Just before Welcome Week, all eligible freshmen received an email through their VCU accounts inviting them to participate. The voluntary project involves DNA collection through saliva samples and an online survey that starts with questions about alcohol attitudes and then asks about topics including temperament, family history and religiosity. All of the information gathered will be kept confidential and will never be connected to individual names or other identifying information.
As of Sept. 2, almost half of the students who were asked to participate had completed the survey and given the saliva sample. "There's a pretty wide range of drinking habits, from a fair number of students who abstain, to those who are mild social drinkers, to a moderate number who are fairly substantial drinkers," Kendler says of the initial results.
Scientists have discovered that genes and environmental factors intertwine to form individual risk profiles for developing psychiatric and substance-use problems, and that genes alone cannot predict the direction someone's life takes, Kendler says. The VCU institute has led studies on this topic in Sweden, England, Finland and China. "Spit for Science: the VCU Student Survey" is the institute's opportunity to bring that research home to Richmond.
The project, which is supported by several grants from the National Institutes of Health, involves collecting the online surveys and DNA samples from approximately 3,700 incoming freshmen at the beginning of the fall semester and then assessing the same students in the spring, after they've established patterns of friendship and substance use in college. Kendler hopes to acquire additional funding so that researchers can follow the students through college and possibly into post-college years.
"Part of what's exciting for us is that this is a key transition between late adolescence and early adulthood," he says.
Linda Hancock, director of the VCU Wellness Resource Center, hopes to use the data from the survey to develop preventive programs that will help lower the number of at-risk VCU students. "If we can find variables that are either protective or put people at risk, then instead of our interventions being one-size-fits-all, we can target subgroups."
"It's potentially an extraordinarily helpful study," says Dr. Martin Buxton, chief of psychiatry at CJW Medical Center and medical director of the Family Counseling Center of Richmond. "Often we try to educate people who we think are at risk, so if [the study] can identify that we have a genetic marker and test that's reliable, it'd be another reality test for them to be more cautious."
About 20 percent of the VCU student population struggles with alcohol and drug dependency, matching national averages, according to the National College Health Assessment. Consequences of substance abuse can include injury, arrests, sexual assault and even death.
"There is definitely temptation everywhere when it comes to nightlife," says Komal Dhir, an undergraduate advisor for the study, adding that someone in her freshman residence hall last year dropped out of school because of substance abuse issues. A pre-med and business double major from Northern Virginia, Dhir became involved with the study after contacting Dick about research opportunities for undergraduates. Since the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics is not on the undergraduate campus, Dhir acts as a liaison between the research center and the students, handing out flyers and encouraging her peers to participate. She is one of many students who are taking advantage of the undergraduate educational opportunities afforded through this study.
"This is a hands-on research study," Dhir says. "I got very lucky contacting Dr. Dick. It's the experience of a lifetime."