INSIDE BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY
Researcher chosen for national award, lecture
Distinguished Professor Linda P. Spear received the Mark Keller Award and delivered a lecture on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the National Institutes of Health. “It’ll probably be the biggest honor I ever receive,” Spear said.
The award is given annually to an alcohol researcher who has made significant and long-term contributions to the understanding of how alcohol affects the body and mind, how alcohol abuse and alcoholism can be prevented and treated and how today’s scientific advances can provide hope for tomorrow.
Spear is among those who consider alcoholism to be not only the result of genetic but also developmental factors, a departure from the previous understanding of the problem. “When you start thinking of alcohol as a develop-mental disorder, it changes how you think of preventive measures,” she said. “You deal with it a lot earlier.”
She sees American society’s acceptance of teenage alcohol use as a major issue. If parents know that the average age when youths start experimenting with alcohol is 14, they may accept that their child is drinking at that age. If it’s normal, why fight it, the thinking goes.
But if Spear is right, that early exposure could make individuals more vulnerable to alcohol-related problems as adults.
“There’s room at a lot of different levels to get the message out that underage drinking is not as innocent as it seems,” Spear said. “This award will bring more attention to adolescent issues.”
Her current research is funded by about $1.8 million over the next five years from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), both of which are part of the National Institutes of Health.
NIAAA spokeswoman Ann Bradley said the agency’s director and senior program staff review leading researchers’ body of work when choosing the Keller Award winner. She said any of several hundred scientists whose work is funded by the institute are eligible for the honor.
“It’s the only award given for research by the federal agency that has the country’s leading role in fostering, conducting and supporting alcohol research,” Bradley said.
Spear’s work explores the relationship between drugs and neurobehavioral development. She’s especially inter-ested in the way adolescents respond to alcohol and how brain changes during that stage of development shape that response.
“You can’t really do those studies in humans,” Spear said. “Whereas we can study these issues systematically in rodent models.”
Because of brain changes common to many species, adolescents often demonstrate increased risk-taking and find social interactions with peers especially rewarding. Adolescents of many species leave their home territory, which helps avoid inbreeding and is advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. But some of these brain changes may enable them to drink much more than adults without feeling impaired.
“Basically what we have found is that adolescents differ a lot from adults in the way they respond to alcohol,” Spear said.
The bottom line is that adolescents are insensitive to many of alcohol’s dysphoric effects, but in contrast are more sensitive to the social effects of alcohol and the memory impairment it can cause.
Spear, a native of Springfield, Ill., holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Florida and a bachelor’s from Western Illinois University. At Binghamton, she has served as chair of the Department of Psychology as well as director of the Center for Develop-mental Psychobiology.
She has been interested in development since junior high, when she found a nest of mice outdoors and watched them grow. Spear turned to the field of adolescence as a researcher after becoming “annoyed” by the way that stage would mess up her otherwise orderly developmental data.
Although she focused on prenatal effects of drugs for a time, Spear has been drawn back to adolescence and now considers that developmental phase her primary focus.