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Professor researches alcohol behaviors in bar lab

May 04, 2011

As long as you’re 21 or older and meet the inclusion criteria, ASU professor Will Corbin wants you to drink for science.

“People think that this must not be real,” Corbin said. “They think that it’s a joke or something. Drink for science and get paid to do it?”

Corbin studies the effects of alcohol on behavior by administering alcohol to paid participants in his “bar laboratory.”

The goals of Corbin’s research are to improve the understanding of factors that lead to the development of alcohol-related problems and to develop effective programs for reducing alcohol-related harms. Corbin doesn’t think it is realistic to try to stop all drinking by college students but, he said that he hopes to “to reduce the harm associated with drinking by college students.”

In order to construct as realistic of an environment as possible, Corbin has created a simulated bar at the psychology north building on ASU’s Tempe campus. G. Alan Marlatt built the first bar lab at the University of Washington in the early 1980s and since then various bar labs have cultivated across the country.

Substance use disorders are the third most common psychiatric diagnoses and heavy alcohol use contributes to a host of high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sexual behavior that increases risk for HIV/AIDS, other drug use, problem gambling and driving under the influence, which is responsible for a large percentage of traffic-related fatalities.

In addition to examining alcohol effects on behavior, Corbin uses the simulated bar to study individual differences in subjective experiences of alcohol effects. Corbin believes that the use of a simulated bar is particularly important for this research because these effects would differ in a natural drinking context versus looking at them in a sterile lab environment.

Corbin tries to make the drinking experience as realistic as possible in other ways as well.

“I think if we brought people in at 8 a.m. and gave them alcohol we’d be working against a ‘natural environment,’” Corbin said.

So the experiments are hosted two nights a week from 5 p.m. to around midnight in the lab, known as the Behavioral Alcohol Research for Clinical Advancement lounge, or BARCA lounge.

Designed to resemble a real bar, the ceiling is black, the floor is a dark synthetic wood, the walls are beige, there are no windows, and the lights are always dimmed. A photograph of Tempe at night taken from Tempe Butte covers half of one wall. In the middle of the room four cushioned chairs center a small table. Four narrow pendant orange and brown lights hang above the orange-colored bar counter. A flat-screen TV hangs in the corner of the room and another one hangs behind the bar. Bottles of liquor line the shelves behind the bar. Two neon signs light-up the otherwise dimly lit room. The whole BARCA lounge takes up around 800 square feet with the bar area itself taking up around 400 square feet.

“I think that people step into the bar and they sort of forget that they’re inside psychology north because it feels like they’re in a real bar,” Corbin said. “People can’t believe the bar exists in the middle of a university building.”

Another important part of the natural setting is drinking in groups, Corbin said. They aim for four participants a night and won’t collect data unless there are at least two participants.

“The number of college students drinking alone is relatively small compared to the number drinking in a social context,” Corbin said.

Because the researchers want all of the participants to have the same blood alcohol level of .08, they adjust the amount of alcohol administered based on gender and weight. Within 30 minutes, as top 40 music plays, participants drink roughly the equivalent of three mixed vodka drinks.

Prior to drinking, participants complete surveys and perform computer based tasks. After drinking participants complete additional surveys and behavioral tasks. To measure subjective alcohol effects, participants rate feelings such as sociable, reckless, and lonely on a 10 point scale. Even though the procedure ends around 9 p.m., participants stay until their blood alcohol levels return to .02., which can be anywhere from midnight to 2 a.m.

While participants wait for their blood alcohol content to drop to a safe level, they hang out in the lounge. Corbin said participants usually watch TV or pick a movie from the DVR. Sometimes they’ll play Xbox. Snacks such as granola bars, and chips and salsa are provided. Participants are also allowed to order food. If they need to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, they’re always escorted by research staff.

Corbin said they have very well established procedures for protecting research participants.

“Even after their blood alcohol levels come down to a .02 we still provide them with transportation home,” Corbin said. “They’re not allowed to drive to the study. We don’t want to put any of our research participants at risk.”

While Corbin conducts lab based studies weekly, his research also includes longitudinal studies of risk and protective factors for substance use, subjects that originally sparked his interest in studying alcohol.

Corbin just finished a five year longitudinal study with Professor Kim Fromme, his post doctoral supervisor at The University of Texas-Austin, where he conducted his first lab based alcohol research. Corbin and Fromme monitored a wide range of risk behaviors in the 2004 freshmen class at The University of Texas-Austin. They’ll use the data to understand factors that contribute to substance use and abuse in college students.

At Yale University, a school where Corbin spent seven years as a faculty member, he is part of an ongoing study, “Project Choice,” which is conducted under the direction of Stephanie O’Malley. This study targets 18- to 25- year-olds who are interested in reducing their alcohol consumption but do not necessarily want to stop drinking. Even though the study takes place in Connecticut, Corbin continues serve as an investigator on the project and works with collaborators through video conferences and visits to New Haven.

Even if he’s not working on a specific project he’s always looking for ways he can help prevent alcohol problems.

“The real key to success for those trying to reduce their drinking is motivation,” Corbin said. “Think about all of the ways that your alcohol use has negatively impacted your life and use that to motivate your efforts to change. It also helps to think about all of the ways that your life might be better if you changed your behavior. If you can keep your motivation high, your chances of succeeding are good.”

For people who are just beginning to experience alcohol problems or have not yet developed physical dependence on alcohol, they can learn to reduce their alcohol consumption to safe levels. Corbin said the first step for them would be to set goals for safe levels of consumption.

Corbin said he’s really interested in working toward developing new prevention programs on campus in the future.

Instead of focusing on reducing drinking directly, Corbin wants to increase focus on activities that are incompatible with heavy drinking and to get students re-engaged in the academic aspects of the university.