Fighting substance abuse by understanding the impact of childhood trauma

Psychology student wins graduate research fellowship from NSF


Matthew Broussard was named a 2020 recipient of the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Photo courtesy of Matthew Broussard

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For a long time, Matthew Broussard has wanted to understand how childhood trauma can lead to substance abuse in adults. 

Reading a news article about research happening at Arizona State University on this topic is what led him to enroll as a transfer student. The topic also was the focus of his application to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) last fall.

Broussard, a first-generation college student who recently graduated from ASU with a double major in psychology and philosophy and a minor in religious studies, won a GRFP. The fellowship provides him with a stipend and covers his graduate school tuition, which means next semester he will be researching the impact of childhood trauma on substance use as a master’s degree student with Scott Leischow in ASU’s College of Health Solutions. Broussard plans to apply to doctoral programs in clinical psychology after completing ASU’s Master’s in the Science of Health Care Delivery program.

“Matt is really bright and enthusiastic and is addressing critically important topics that impact a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world,” Leischow said. “Matt’s research links psychology to the College of Health Solutions, and we are excited to have him as a student in our program. He is going to gain significant knowledge and expertise about the health care system that will round out his experience, given his background in psychology and desire to be clinician.” 

From the ASU Department of Psychology to the College of Health Solutions

As an undergraduate, Broussard worked in four addiction research labs, including as a lab manager for the Social Addictions Impulse Lab (SAIL), led by Julie A. Patock-Peckham in the Department of Psychology. With Patock-Peckham, Broussard studied how emotion regulation and mental health affected drinking behavior in college students. 

“Matt is a delight to work with and wants to learn everything about the research process. His passion for studying trauma and substance use combined with his love of statistics means he is already a talented addictions researcher, which is rare for someone at this stage in their career,” Patock-Peckam said.    

For his doctoral research, Broussard plans to study how emotion regulation can act as a bridge between childhood trauma and substance abuse in adults. He also wants to examine the role of health care providers and health care delivery in addressing the effects of childhood trauma on later substance abuse.

“My goal is to create a way to examine how childhood trauma might lead to a reduced ability to regulate emotions during stressful events and how that contributes to substance abuse,” Broussard said.

Broussard plans to combine biological measures like heart rate, respiratory rate, cortisol levels and microfacial expressions with subjective measures like answers to questionnaires that assess how people are dealing emotionally with current stressors and past trauma.

“The current treatments for trauma — childhood, war, sexual assault — are not as effective as we want them to be,” Broussard said. “I hope that understanding the relationship between biological markers and subjective experiences will lead to improved treatments in the future."

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