University of Kentucky students will be using BlackBerrys to help researchers study the relationship between impulsivity and substance abuse.
Tracking the level of impulsivity in select students, by having them respond about how they are feeling via text, is a small part of a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The grant also will pay for laboratory experiments and a cross-campus collection of faculty and students to explore the theory and come up with practical interventions. Fifteen students, post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate, are assisting in the research.
The team includes faculty researchers from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Medicine, the College of Public Health and the College of Pharmacy.
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"Fundamentally, we are interested in seeing who's at greatest risk" for developing substance abuse problems, said Mike Bardo, director of the Center on Drug Abuse Research Translation, which received the grant last summer.
Richard Milich, a UK psychology professor also working on the grant, said much of the work on substance abuse prevention has focused on "sensation seekers" who start drugs or alcohol for the novelty of the experience. The UK study will focus on what the researchers are calling "negative urgency." Those who use alcohol or drugs to regulate their emotions and reach for substances impulsively when upset are fueled by "negative urgency," he said.
"Negative urgency is avoiding displeasure," he explained.
It's important to understand the motivations behind the use of potentially addictive substances in order to create effective prevention strategies, Bardo said.
With sensation seekers and those prompted by negative urgency, he said, "there are two groups that are using substances for radically different reasons." For example, he said, people using alcohol or drugs to regulate their moods could benefit from learning meditation or other self-calming techniques.
College students, especially freshman, are a perfect demographic for studying the issues. That young-adult transition to more independence is an ideal time to intervene and prevent the worst effects of substance abuse.
Overall, Milich said, roughly 10 percent of the population abuses substances, so even if the new research can reach two percent to three percent of that group, it can change a lot of lives.