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Researcher whose work defines addiction as lifespan illness earns accolades

June 16, 2010
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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University center director has worked on longitudinal analysis since the 1980s

The signature research project of Robert Zucker, PhD, has been going on since the 1980s, when many of its now young-adult subjects were small children. And Zucker says of his research that there’s “no end in sight,” not with so many questions about the risk and protective factors associated with addiction still unanswered.

The substance use disorder longitudinal study that Zucker spearheads at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center represents one of several accomplishments for which he is being honored by the Research Society on Alcoholism. The organization later this month will present Zucker, director of the university center, with its 31st annual Distinguished Researcher Award, two days after he delivers a keynote address at the society’s national meeting.

Zucker discusses the impact of the award not in personal terms, but with respect to how it might call greater attention to research that he still says has gone largely unnoticed in much of the treatment and prevention community.

“We’ve strongly pushed the importance of looking at [substance abuse] risk developmentally,” he says. “It’s not a question of ‘you have it or you don’t have it.’ It unfolds over time.”

As does the longitudinal study, one of several in the field that resemble more commonly referenced long-term studies of heart disease risk and other medical risks over the lifespan. Zucker’s research originally identified at-risk families by looking at those where the father had a drunk-driving offense involving a particularly high blood alcohol concentration. The study has generated more than 150 papers over the years and has informed a wealth of topics, from the tendency for behavioral disorders to be “nested” in certain neighborhoods to the large number of variables of health, social and family functioning that substance use disorders touch.

The research also has uncovered details about the relationship between genetic and environmental factors associated with substance use, with Zucker making the case that the link plays out as a “two-way street” in which each set of factors affects the other.

Zucker’s colleagues also credit him with mentoring a generation of fledgling researchers both in the United States and in Europe. He launched and still directs a training program supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that develops substance abuse research capability in Central and Eastern Europe. That program currently has a presence in Poland, Slovakia, Latvia and the Ukraine.

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