UChicago receives $3.22 million to study alcohol abuse and aggression


Psychiatry researchers at the University of Chicago have received a $3.22 million grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The research project, led by Andrea King, PhD, both professors in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, will study how alcohol abuse affects people with a history of aggression.

“Aggression is a serious problem that affects a lot of people, both those who have aggression and those who are on the receiving end,” Coccaro said. “We know that people who get aggressive when they drink tend to be aggressive to begin with, so this research will help us understand what alcohol is doing in the brain to make this behavior worse.”

Surveys show that 3.6 percent of adults in the United States meet all the clinical criteria for aggression, also known as intermittent explosive disorder (IED). Up to 7.6 percent of adults have at least three major outbursts per year. Alcohol use is linked with aggression, and people who have signs of impulsive aggression are more likely to be problem drinkers as well. Yet little is known about the actual neuroscience of what alcohol does to the brain in aggressive people.

Research suggests that the amygdala, part of the brain involved in decision-making and emotional processing, overreacts to perceived threats in people with aggression. Long-term alcohol abuse dampens responses to threats in the amygdala, which would seem to counteract the aggressive responses. Instead, alcohol makes the aggression worse, turning an angry person into an even angrier drunk.

Coccaro and King plan to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor what is happening in the brain as people with and without a history of aggression respond to perceived threats while under the influence of alcohol. During the imaging process, research participants will be given saline or alcohol through an IV until the amount of alcohol reaches the legal limit for intoxication.

The research participants will also watch videos of different interactions between people and answer surveys about whether they perceived the interactions as threatening or with bad intentions. For example, after watching a martial arts competition, they might be asked if the fight was fair or if one of the fighters cheated.

The way they answer these questions are a gauge of their own responses to threats. Aggressive people overreact or assume bad intentions in what most people would see as a harmless situation. Coccaro and King’s team will examine whether there are differences in brain activity between people with a history of aggression and those without, and possibly reveal new opportunities for treatment.

“Aggression is misunderstood because it’s not just bad behavior. There’s a real biological basis in the brain,” Coccaro said. “So, if you know the mechanisms behind what happens when aggressive people drink, we can pursue new strategies for intervention.”

Emil Coccaro, MD

Emil Coccaro, MD

Emil Coccaro, MD, is the Ellen C. Manning Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at UChicago. He specializes in treating mood, anxiety and personality disorders, with a focus on intermittent explosive disorder or aggression.

Andrea King, PhD

Andrea King, PhD

Andrea King, PhD, is a psychiatrist who focuses on tobacco and alcohol addiction, assessment and treatment of substance use disorders, and cancer prevention and control. 

Read Dr. King's profile