Scripps Research Institute Professor Cindy Ehlers has been awarded a prestigious $3.6 million MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the risk factors for alcoholism in Native Americans.
The five-year MERIT award will fund Ehlers’ project to better understand alcohol dependence and alcohol-related problems in Native American Indians and to determine why some groups of Native Americans are at high risk for alcoholism by identifying key genetic and environmental variables.
Native Americans have historically experienced numerous problems with alcohol since its introduction into their society by European settlers. Although tribes differ with regard to the use of alcohol, Native Americans, as a group, have the highest alcohol-related death rates of all ethnic groups in the United States. However, how and why alcoholism is more prevalent in some Native American communities remains to be clarified.
“We’ve found there is a strong relationship between early underage drinking in Native American young people and their risk for alcoholism,” Ehlers said. “The risk does not appear to be genetic. The new grant will give us the time to document whether exposure to alcohol in adolescence leads to specific and detrimental medical and psychological outcomes and to develop culturally relevant and sensitive ideas for treatment and prevention programs specifically tailored for these communities.”
Ehlers said she also plans to investigate whether Native Americans have a unique clinical course of alcoholism or a specific pattern of other psychiatric disorders present with alcoholism that may also influence treatment.