Feature

When he gets out of bed in the morning, Mark S. Goldman, PhD, sometimes collides with a wall. As a psychology professor at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa and the associate director of the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Bethesda, Md., Goldman divides his time between two jobs, two cities and two beds--which can lead to morning disorientation, he says.

In fact, the psychologist's morning mishaps illustrate a principle he investigates in his research: the power of expectations. An expectation of the bed's orientation against a wall drives people's behavior, allowing them to get up without thinking much about the direction they move in, says Goldman. Similarly, in Goldman's USF lab--where he spends 25 percent of his working hours--he and his colleagues seek to understand the processes by which expectations can influence people's drinking behaviors. The researchers are also developing interventions to curb college students' motivation to drink by demonstrating that alcohol doesn't enhance sex appeal or extraversion, Goldman notes.

The other 75 percent of the time, Goldman helps to shape the direction of alcohol abuse research by fostering collaborations among scientists--especially between biologists and psychologists. For example, in March, Goldman convened a working group to outline areas where increased research is needed on underage drinking. He also advocates for research funding within NIAAA that focuses on underage drinking and developmental disturbances that might arise when young brains and minds are exposed to alcohol.

"I came to NIAAA to infuse the behavioral perspective into what we do," says Goldman, who joined the institute in June 2003. "Whatever else is going on genetically or biologically, we decide whether or not we are going to drink."

The expectation game

The director of NIAAA, Ting-Kai Li, MD, invited Goldman to the organization because the physician believes that biology and psychology inextricably intertwine, especially in the case of alcohol abuse, Goldman says. But while geneticists have made great strides in finding genes related to alcohol abuse, and psychologists increasingly understand its cognitive underpinnings, the two areas remain too separated, he notes.

"There has been a dynamic in the field of psychology, with psychological science being distinct from biological sciences," says Goldman. "We need to get beyond that characterization; Mother Nature is not separated that way, and we can't be either."

As a researcher at USF, Goldman himself has contributed much to the cognitive pieces of the puzzle. Specifically, he studies how the decision to drink can be swayed by people's expectations of what happens when they drink. For example, a college student might drink at a party to make himself more extroverted. However, alcoholism researchers have long known much of the increase in extroversion happens as a result of the expectation, not the alcohol, Goldman notes.

"By understanding the cognitive issues involved in drinking, we might be able to target interventions," says Jack Darkes, PhD, a USF psychology professor, who works in Goldman's lab.

In fact, in 1998, Goldman and Darkes even developed an intervention where they lay bare the illusion of alcohol's positive effects to stem students' drinking--published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology (Vol. 6, No. 1, pages 64-76).

The participants met in Goldman's USF laboratory, which is set up to look like a bar. The researchers provided the students--who met in groups of 10--with drinks, though half of the drinks contained one ounce of vodka while the others consisted of flat tonic water. The students could not tell which drinks were alcoholic and which were not, as the rims of all the glasses were smeared with vodka.

After a period of social interactions, the students attempted to guess who among them had been drinking alcohol, and found out their assumptions were wildly inaccurate. This experience led many of them to drink less than they previously did, and researchers are now testing the intervention with larger populations.

"We had a participant who came back to us and said, 'You really messed up my drinking. Now when I act silly, I know it is not because of the alcohol,'" Goldman recalls. "That's exactly what we wanted to happen."

A developmental perspective

Goldman also hopes to stem underage drinking by raising public awareness of the problem. At NIAAA, he initiated a survey of college-age drinking and its effects, and spearheaded efforts to disseminate the information to the public and university officials. Particularly, Goldman and his colleagues found that 1,400 deaths and 500,000 injuries each year result from college student drinking.

In addition to mailing the report to university presidents, Goldman and his colleagues created a Web page--www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov--where the NIAAA posts breaking news on college students' alcohol use. University staff can also use the site to browse drinking policies at universities across the United States.

In the coming years, Goldman hopes to extend research and information-dissemination programs to include high school-age alcohol users. At NIAAA, he is spurring researchers to identify the ways alcohol use affects adolescents and even younger children, says Vivian Faden, PhD, deputy director of NIAAA's Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research.

"We are ramping up the next generation of research, looking at alcoholism as a developmental phenomenon," Faden says.

In March, Goldman brought together geneticists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and other scientists to map out the state of research on adolescent alcohol abuse. In future meetings, they will then determine what areas need filling in--the effect of alcohol on the developing brain, for example, or adolescents' perceptions of alcohol use. The group's findings will then inform NIAAA's research agenda and funding priorities, Faden says.

Few are better equipped to lead such a group than Goldman, she notes.

Goldman "comes with a diverse background of his own, and he has a gift for motivating cross talk among disciplines," Faden says.