Funding supports study of alcohol and visual processing in young adults

Dingcai Cao receives grant from ABMRF/The Foundation for Alcohol ResearchDingcai Cao, PhD, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Director of UIC’s Visual Perception Laboratory, has received a $100,000 award from ABMRF/The Foundation for Alcohol Research for his project Alcohol Effects on Visual Processing in At-Risk Social Drinkers. The two-year study will investigate the effects of alcohol on visual processing and photoreceptor function in moderate to heavy drinkers age 21-29. Dr. Cao is collaborating on the multidisciplinary research project with Dr. Andrea King, an NIAAA R01-funded behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago who has extensive experience in human alcohol administration studies.

Dr. Cao notes that heavy social drinking among young adults has become a serious problem in the U.S., with 44% of college-aged young adults engaging in binge drinking. One of the most severe consequences of excessive alcohol drinking particularly in younger drinkers is unintentional injury or accidents (motor vehicle crashes or falls).  In 2009, 43% of drunk drivers involved in fatal car crashes were between 21-34 years old. Alcohol-related injuries and fatalities likely involve several systems, including impairments in ocular-motor function, information processing and psychomotor function. Dr. Cao points out that the role of the visual system in all of these processes is key, as the majority of sensory information that reaches the central nervous system comes through the eyes. Therefore, visual impairment caused by alcohol plays a major role in alcohol-related injuries.

Dr. Cao’s placebo-controlled investigation will look at the acute effects of alcohol on fundamental aspects of visual processing produced by different photoreceptors (rods for night vision and cones for day vision) and visual pathways. The study will also examine the relationship of alcohol-induced visual impairments to other objective and subjective responses.

Dr. Cao will conduct a within-subject, double-blind study of alcohol administration in 55 heavy social drinkers 21-29 years old. Testing will be done in two sessions—one following a high dose of alcohol (0.8g/kg) and the other following a placebo. Within each session, subjects will be assessed three times: baseline, 30 minutes after alcohol (rising limb) and 105 minutes after alcohol (descending limb). A series of novel visual processing measures will be used during each session.

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013. Dr. Cao believes that the study will provide a better understanding of the visual function changes caused by alcohol consumption, which likely play a major role in alcohol-related injuries and premature death. Dr. Cao also hopes that the results will help to understand why heavy alcohol drinking can increases the risk for certain retinal diseases.  His ultimate goal is to make a contribution to public health, education and safety issues related to alcohol abuse.

by Margaret Doyle