Spin-Off Projects

The following projects have sought funding to contact previous Spit for Science participants for additional data collection.

Life Experiences and Alcohol Use
Principal Investigator: Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D. and Sage Hawn
VCU Department of Psychology

The proposed research project will address gaps in the current alcohol and trauma literatures by investigating the extent to which trauma-related drinking motives mediate the distinct relation between PTSD and AUD and the extent to which genetic variability for alcohol use phenotypes (e.g., trauma-related drinking, AUD symptoms) and PTSD overlaps. To do so, we propose to leverage data from a unique resource: an ongoing longitudinal, genetically-informative study of college students at a large, diverse urban university  In addition to the existing genotypic data available through S4S, the proposed study will recruit trauma-exposed students who have a history of alcohol use to obtain refined phenotypic data. This will include a novel measure of trauma-related drinking to cope as well as a more rigorous PTSD assessment in order to address the main research questions. It is our hope that conducting the proposed investigation using this sample can help elucidate common etiological risk underlying trauma-related drinking, AUD, and PTSD, which is imperative to the development of effective prevention and treatment programs, particularly among young adults who are at increased risk for developing AUD and PTSD.

Coping-Oriented Drinking in Trauma-Exposed Young Adults: A Genetically Informed Investigation
Principal Investigator: Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., Kenneth Kendler, M.D. & Erin Berenz, Ph.D.
VCU Department of Psychiatry

The overarching goal of this research project is to examine the role of genetic and phenotypic (e.g., distress tolerance) factors in the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and coping-oriented drinking in a sample of emerging young adults participating in VCU’s Spit for Science study (VCU IRB HM1459). The first aim of the study will involve archival data analysis of de-identified data from Spit for Science. The proposed study also has an aim involving new data collection (aim 2). Specifically, we aim to enroll up to 600 individuals who endorsed trauma exposure and current alcohol use during the Spit for Science data collection to complete an online survey assessing emotional vulnerability factors, trauma and PTSD, and alcohol use patterns.

The proposed study is clinically significant, in that it would increase our understanding of genetic and environmental factors underlying PTSD and problematic alcohol use, ultimately informing the development of targeted prevention and early intervention strategies. It is hypothesized that: (1) we will detect significant relationships between genetic variation and the phenotypes of coping-oriented drinking and probable PTSD history in the full, de-identified Spit for Science sample; (2a) we will replicate a number of these significant genetic factors in relation to the refined phenotypes of PTSD symptom severity and coping-oriented drinking in our new study sample; (2b) lower levels of behaviorally indexed DT will mediate a relationship between PTSD symptom severity and greater coping-oriented drinking; and (2c) lower levels of behaviorally indexed DT will mediate a relationship between PTSD symptom severity and greater coping-oriented drinking, above and beyond genetic factors.

The Relationship Between Depressive Mood, Affect and Cigarette Use Among College Students
Principal Investigator: Cristina Bares, Ph.D., MSW
VCU Department of Social Work

The study will analyze existing Spit for Science data to examine the relationship between depressive symptoms and cigarette use. The spin off component will invite a subset of students who smoke to participate in an ecological momentary assessment study. Participants will receive three text messages per day with a link to a brief survey with questions about current mood, smoking intentions, cigarette craving and how many cigarettes they smoked since the prior signal. The requested N is ~100 and the purpose is to access the daily fluctuations in depression and cigarette use.

Characterizing Brain Activation Patterns associated with Subtypes of Binge Drinking
Principal Investigator: Danielle Dick, Ph.D., Jim Bjork, Ph.D., and Megan Cooke
VCU Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry

The current study will integrate genetics and neuroimaging to examine the phenotypic and genetic heterogeneity in problem drinking in order to better understand the associations between genetic risk and brain networks related to potentially different pathways of risk for high-risk drinking patterns. We will select young adult binge drinkers from the VCU Spit for Science (S4S) sample, who differ with respect to whether they display comorbid externalizing characteristics (antisocial behavior, sensation seeking; N=20) or internalizing characteristics (drinking to cope, depression, anxiety; N=20).  We will assess their brain reactivity in the amygdala, ventral striatum (VS), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). In addition, using available genetic information we will create polygenic risk scores among these participants, in order to test whether patterns of brain activation mediate the phenotypic and genotypic associations for externalizing and internalizing pathways.

Improving Alcohol Education at VCU
Principal Investigator: Danielle Dick, Ph.D., Kristen Donovan, MPH & Linda Hancock, Ph.D.
VCU Department of Psychology and The Wellness Resource Center at VCU

This study will use data from the Spit for Science baseline fall freshman questionnaire to assign participants to different alcohol prevention programming based on their level of response to alcohol. We will then follow their drinking patterns across time to test whether tailored prevention programming (programming that incorporates a model of risk surrounding level of response to alcohol) is more effective at reducing risky college drinking. Our hypothesis is that individuals who are assigned to a matched prevention program will show lower levels of alcohol consumption than individuals assigned to prevention as usual, and that individuals who are assigned to a mismatched condition will do worse than individuals assigned to prevention as usual. This project aims to replicate the study of Schuckit et al., 2013.

Evaluating Online Alcohol Education at VCU
Principal Investigator: Danielle Dick, Ph.D., Kristen Donovan, MPH & Linda Hancock, Ph.D.
VCU Department of Psychology and The Student Wellness Resource Center

This study aims to enroll participants from Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey, The project will test whether completing an online alcohol education module (BASICS Feedback), which is currently available through the VCU Wellness Resource Center, is associated with reduced alcohol consumption among college freshman. This study aims to evaluate the effectiveness of this intervention in reducing the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, other drug consumption, and the harms related to use. Investigators will test this by inviting a random subset of Spit for Science participants to complete the online module and then comparing their alcohol use data collected as part of the Spit for Science project.


The Relationship Spin-Off
Principal Investigator: Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D. and Danielle Dick, Ph.D.
VCU Department of Psychology

Genetic predispositions and environmental risk factors for psychiatric disorders are not independent of one another; accordingly, there is a critical need to characterize the nature of their association. The proposed project examines this with respect to the genes involved in susceptibility to common, but serious, externalizing problems [e.g., alcohol use disorders (alcohol abuse lifetime prevalence 13%) and substance use disorders (drug abuse lifetime prevalence 8%)] and functioning in close relationships. Involvement in a low quality romantic relationship or less supportive friendships are well-known risk factor for these common psychiatric problems [1;3-5]. In order to better understand how genetic predispositions come together with close relationship factors in emerging adulthood, we propose collecting dyadic relationships data from a subset of participants who are part of the genetically informative Spit for Science project.  These findings will enhance our understanding of the nature of the associations between genetic influences for these conditions and close relationship functioning. Ultimately, this work could inform comprehensive prevention and intervention efforts aimed at bolstering dyadic functioning or increasing social support as one way to mitigate the risk posed by genetic predispositions to these psychiatric disorders.

A Culturally Relevant Approach to Understanding Gene-Environment Interaction in Alcohol and Substance Use Problems Among African-American Young Adults
Principal Investigator: Jinni Su, Ph.D.
VCU Department of Psychology

The proposed project examines how genetic predispositions interact with key, culturally relevant environmental risk (e.g., racial discrimination) and protective (e.g., racial socialization) factors in predicting alcohol and substance use problems in African-American young adults, as young adulthood is a period when risk for developing these problems peaks. Experiences of racial discrimination can be a significant stressor that places African Americans at risk for alcohol and substance use problems, and is a relevant risk factor for young adults because they have increased opportunities for exposure to racial discrimination as they seek employment, continued education, or training programs.  Racial socialization, defined as the transmission of social norms related to race from adults/parents to children through practices such as exposure to cultural practices and objects, efforts to instill pride in and knowledge about African Americans, discussions about discrimination and how to cope with it, and strategies to succeed within the dominant and/or racially stratified society, is a protective factor for African Americans’ psychosocial outcomes, including lower risk for alcohol and substance use. No prior research has examined the potential roles of these important sociocultural factors in mitigating or exacerbating genetic risk for alcohol and substance use problems.

Examining E-Cigarette User Transition to Tobacco Cigarette Smoking
Principal Investigator: Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D. and Marzena Hiler
VCU Department of Psychology

Electronic cigarettes (ECIGS) are a class of alternative tobacco products that are popular among U.S. adults and adolescents. These products aerosolize a liquid, often containing the dependence-producing drug nicotine for user inhalation. While many ECIG users are former or current cigarette smokers, a growing number of ECIG users are formerly nicotine-naïve young adults and adolescents who have never smoked cigarettes. ECIG use among nicotine-naïve individuals is concerning to public health officials who fear ECIGs may produce nicotine dependence that will lead to subsequent uptake of more lethal tobacco cigarettes. These concerns have been validated, in part, by longitudinal studies revealing that young adult ECIG users are more likely to initiate cigarette smoking after having used ECIGs. Therefore, understanding the reasons why some ECIG users transition to and use of tobacco cigarettes is a public health necessity. The present study will identify specific user-generated reasons for transitioning from ECIG use to tobacco cigarette smoking among a sample of young adult college students. Former/current ECIG users (N = 100) who report using ECIGs and subsequently initiating cigarette smoking will complete an established multi-step, survey-based research exercise called “concept mapping” (CM). CM involves brainstorming statements about reasons for transitioning to cigarette smoking, sorting statements into conceptually similar categories, and rating the importance of each statement. Multivariate statistical analysis (multidimensional scaling, hierarchical cluster analysis) will identify a conceptual model that characterizes and describes reasons for transition. Results will provide insight into specific reasons for transitioning from ECIGs to tobacco cigarettes.