When a woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy, the effects on the fetus can be severe. A Binghamton University researcher, with the help of a $400,000 grant, is looking to see if the effects can reach future generations.
Nicole Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology, is conducting research that focuses on the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure. Her lab was the first to discover that alcohol use during pregnancy not only affects the offspring directly exposed, but also has the potential to increase the likelihood for alcohol abuse and dependency in up to three future generations.
“We found that low alcohol exposure during gestational days 17-20 — birth is at gestational day 21 — resulted in increased alcohol intake in juvenile offspring, and that this behavior is transmitted across three generations,” Cameron wrote in an email. “Indeed, offspring whose grandparents had received alcohol exposure in utero also showed an increase in alcohol intake when compared with prenatally water exposed or untreated groups …”
Her team submitted the proposal for a $400,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in November 2014. They received the reward letter in early February of this year. The grant will provide $200,000 per year for two years, and will go toward funding her general research needs.
Cameron said that her research compares the behavior of rats to humans in three distinct areas. The first area looks at variations in the maternal hypothalamus, pituitary gland and gonadal relationship, and how they impact the offspring’s behavior. These three glands are studied as one related system, and the interactions are important to reproduction regulation.
The second area examines the effect of prenatal alcohol exposure on alcohol use and abuse on the child and the offspring of later generations. Lastly, the third line looks into the parent-child interactions and their effect on relationships, health and risky behavior such as alcohol consumption.
“Combined, these lines of research complement each other, give our research program a translational approach, and allow us to test with humans the hypotheses derived from our animal work,” Cameron wrote. “Ultimately, our research seeks to help identify mechanisms by which early life environment programs subsequent behavior and physiology.”
Daniel Popoola, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate studying behavioral neuroscience, has been one of the graduate students helping Cameron with her research since 2012. He said he became involved in her lab because he is interested in alcohol-use behaviors, and that he is excited to be a part of research that is redefining the field.
“One of the best feelings in scientific research is to get experimental results that validate your hypothesis, while discovering results that challenges knowledge that has existed for decades,” Popoola wrote in an email. “Although alcoholism is believed to possess a genetic component, transgenerational modulation of alcohol-use behaviors across three generations including those that had never encountered alcohol has never been reported. It is highly exciting that we were the first to show this.”
James Jentsch, a psychology professor at BU and colleague of Cameron’s, said the research shows BU’s psychology department is a leading institution in the world of science and this grant will further the discussion on substance abuse.
“Her research ensures that the Department of Psychology at BU is at the forefront of scientific research into alcoholism and ensures that our scientists continue to play a leading role in driving the field of alcohol abuse and alcoholism,” Jentsch wrote in an email. “The grant will also provide for opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students to engage in potentially transformative research that deals with addressing one of the biggest sources of disease and preventable death in our society: namely, substance abuse.”