The effects of alcoholism are devastating: Alcoholism costs society
an estimated $148 billion annually. Loss of life from alcoholism
and alcohol abuse is greater than that caused by cancer, AIDS or
heart disease. About one out of every 13 people is either an alcoholic
or abuses alcohol.
Dr. R. Adron Harris is director of the university's
Waggoner Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research.
Yet until recently, very few people were involved in alcohol research.
It wasn’t until studies with twins in the 1970s showed the
genetic influence on alcoholism that it even started being considered
a disease. Understanding the cause and determining the treatment
of this disease is the mission of The Waggoner Center for Alcoholism
and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin.
“[Alcoholism] was traditionally seen as an individual failing
of free will,” says R. Adron Harris, director of the Waggoner
Center. “If the person were strong enough, they could conquer
the alcoholism. That stigma persists. In the area of addiction,
in general, people with the disease do not speak out to lobby for
research and treatment of the disease. So the afflicted do not have
a voice. That is something we’d very much like to change.”
The Waggoner Center was created in 1999 with a $5 million challenge
gift from June and Virgil Waggoner, whose son died of alcoholism.
Before the creation of the center, people in addiction research
were working all over campus: some in pharmacy, some in liberal
arts or natural sciences, many in different buildings. Often, they
didn’t even realize there were others on campus with similar
The Waggoner Center gathers these researchers together in an interdisciplinary
setting. It offers a comprehensive approach to studying alcoholism
and addiction, considering the influence of both genes and environment
on the disease. (There is no “nature vs. nurture” debate
in alcohol research. “They’re both important, they both
interact, and we have to study both,” Harris says.)
Funding has given the Waggoner Center modern instrumentation to
allow it to undertake new forms of addiction research. Pharmacy
Professor Rick Morrisett uses a high-powered microscope, Molecular
Biology Professor Susan Bergeson runs a gene-sequencing facility
to determine people’s genotype, and a gene chip facility helps
speed up gene mapping.
study regulation of gene expression. “Since this also
determines, for example, what is a cancer cell and what is
a normal cell, it might be very important for determining
what is an addictive brain and what is not,” says Harris.
Humans have about 50,000 genes in each cell of their bodies, and
the function of each cell is determined by which genes are turned
on and which are turned off. This is called the regulation of gene
“Since this also determines, for example, what is a cancer
cell and what is a normal cell, it might be very important for determining
what is an addictive brain and what is not,” says Harris.
Before the development of gene chips, trying to identify these genes
was a painfully slow process.
Through the Waggoner Center, the university’s Molecular Biology
Department recruited gene chip expert Vishwanath Iyer. His lab developed
gene chips, which, after about an hour’s worth of preparation,
allow scientists to see almost all 50,000 genes at once to determine
which ones are turned on. The Waggoner Center has published the
only research papers on the application of this technology to alcoholism.
The center is bringing together computer sciences and biology to
develop new technology and programming to sort the data. “We’re
not used to getting 50,000 different pieces of information from
one experiment,” says Harris.
Other professors have been recruited to participate in addiction
research at the Waggoner Center. Neurobiology Professor Nigel Atkinson
is now studying the mechanism of drug tolerance in fruit flies.
Biochemistry Professor Andy Ellington, who engineers DNA to do specific
things, is now working on “molecular sponges,” properly
called aptamers, to soak up cocaine and methamphetamine to treat
Waggoner Center gathers researchers together in an interdisciplinary
The center’s ability to obtain relatively quick funding through
a grant from the state-run Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug
Abuse has been key in its ability to recruit researchers. What also
helps is that Director Harris is a world-class researcher in the
molecular genetics of alcoholism. His research focuses on the molecular
basis to nerve cell sensitivity to alcohol and anesthetics.
“One of the peculiar things about alcoholism is that we have
not known how it works on the brain,” he says.
Most drugs have specific receptors in the brain, proteins with
which the drugs interact, but it was widely accepted that alcohol
did not have these sites. Harris’ team began searching for
sites of alcohol action and found them—key proteins in the
brain on which alcohol acts. They mapped out where alcohol acts
on the protein and Harris hopes that information is used to design
molecules that would block alcohol action.
Treatment is one of the goals of the Waggoner Center. Researchers
are mapping out genes that may help determine the best course of
treatment for an alcoholic. Most likely, many genes working in concert
contribute to alcoholism.
“There are probably different versions of these multiple
genes, called polymorphisms, where there is a difference in the
gene sequence,” Harris says.
Because not everyone responds to treatment in the same way, scientists
believe there are subtypes of alcoholics. By coordinating genetics
and clinical psychology, Bergeson and University of Texas at San
Antonio psychiatrist Bankole Johnson are trying to map out these
types genetically, which would help determine which treatment is
best for whom.
drugs have specific receptors in the brain, but it was widely
accepted that alcohol did not have these sites. Harris’
team began searching for sites of alcohol action and found
Harris believes science will one day be able to recommend treatments
for alcoholism based on a person’s genetics, something he
calls the “medicine of the future.”
Some students may claim they’re going to “the lab”
when, in fact, they’re off to a local bar. At the Waggoner
Center, they don’t have to lie. Associate Professor Kim Fromme
created and heads the Sahara Lab, a lab dressed up as a fully functional
“Everything people see, hear, smell, tells them that they’re
in a bar,” says Fromme.
Researchers at the Sahara Lab most recently studied subjective
reactions to alcohol, that is, people’s perceptions of how
alcohol affects them. Students of all ethnicities, 21 and older,
were carefully screened. Research assistants, acting as bartenders,
gave them enough drinks to cause them to have a .06 blood-alcohol
level. They were then given some sort of stress-inducer, such as
being told that they would have to give a speech on what they do
and don’t like about their bodies. Then they were free to
drink however much they wanted while preparing their speeches, during
a so-called “ad lib” period.
Fromme and Bergeson are compiling the results of the genetic portion
of the study, but they have found some interesting behavioral results.
The less intoxicated a person feels, they say, the more likely he
or she is to drink more and thus have a greater risk of developing
Liu is a graduate student in molecular biology.
They based their tests on research by Marc Schukit, who showed
that those people who feel the influence of alcohol less, though
they may be just as intoxicated as people around them, have a higher
chance of becoming an alcoholic 15 or 20 years later. Fromme and
her researchers wanted to test this empirically.
“Could we show that indeed, people with lower subjective
intoxication self-administer more alcohol given the opportunity?”
says Fromme. “Yes, they do drink more in this laboratory setting.
That supports the hypothesis that they drink more in their daily
Fromme’s interest is not necessarily in alcoholism but in
alcohol use and abuse, which affects a much larger group. She also
studies how to identify these individuals who abuse alcohol early
and intervene before they develop alcoholism.
“College students, for example, tend to mature out of these
heavy binge-drinking patterns,” she says. “We know college
is a developmentally limited period of excess. That’s the
good news: Most of them at graduation will go on to get jobs, get
married, stop their binge drinking. My real interest is during that
developmentally limited period of excess, the problems that can
arise via the misuse of alcohol and engaging in hazardous behaviors
caused by binge drinking.”
Another study in the lab has been investigating alcohol’s
influence on the perceived risk and perceived benefit of engaging
in risky behaviors, such as drunk driving or unprotected sex. Alcohol
reduced perceptions of risk but did not alter the perception of
assistant Macy Brown works in the lab of Dr. Harris.
“In other words,” says Fromme, “alcohol didn’t
mush your brain and dampen all of your cognition, but it seemed
to selectively influence the perception of risk by making you feel
They also have investigated the success of various prevention programs
and are trying to figure out why so many don’t work.
Researchers also taught basic behavioral skills, such as alternating
each drink with water, and showed subjects that alcohol reduces
their perception of the danger of risky behavior. They even did
this while the subjects were drunk in the bar lab, but the preventions
“That suggests that we need to know more about the kinds
of factors that are motivating that kind of high-risk behavior,”
As the Waggoner Center continues to make strides in approaching
the disease of alcoholism from various standpoints, it may uncover
these factors and many others that contribute to the disease. Its
most powerful tool is not its instrumentation or its labs, but the
fact that it enables experts from a variety of disciplines to work
together toward a common goal: understanding the cause and finding
the cure for a devastating disease.
“It’s just such a wonderful entity to be able to bring
together this kind of multi-disciplinary research,” Fromme
says, “and it’s just so phenomenally rare, in my experience,
that molecular biologists and clinical psychologists would even
be in the same room together, much less be doing collaborative research.”