Spit for Science? A Different Approach to a Common Problem

Nov 21, 2016

Substance abuse and emotional problems are common at many of the nation’s colleges and universities, but helping students to stay strong and healthy is no easy job.  At Virginia Commonwealth, scientists are taking a whole different approach – asking students to take part in research on what genetic factors may put them at risk, and looking for ways to prevent or treat problems when they occur. 

Students at VCU play a central role in studies of genetic ties to behavioral and emotional problems through the Spit for Science program.
Credit Virginia Commonwealth University

Between 2011 and 2015, students enrolling at VCU were invited to take part in a unique study – filling out surveys about themselves.

“About their behavior, their personality, their experiences growing up, their family, their friends.” 

Danielle Dick is a professor of psychology and co-founder of the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute or COBE.  Each student is tracked only by a number – asked to share more personal information about sleep, exercise, mental health and use of drugs.

“We ask about how frequently they drink, how much they typically drink; other forms of drug use. We assess things like extroversion.  How much do you like being around other people.  We assess sensation seeking.  Would you like to ski down a mountain very fast?”

That question in particular helps identify risk takers who could be headed for trouble – or not:

“High risk takers tend to be successful entrepreneurs and to be engaged and often times sports that or other outlets where they can channel that predisposition.  They also are more likely to put themselves in high risk situations with respect to substance use and other drugs.”

COBE also invites students to Spit for Science – providing a saliva sample for DNA analysis, so researchers can look for genetic markers associated with risky behavior, anxiety, depression and drug abuse.

Professor Dick says the institute is also looking for effective ways to channel student behavior toward positive goals. 

“How can we take what we know from basic research about what are the pathways of risk toward substance use problems and develop more tailored prevention and intervention; going beyond a one size fits all. How do we create support systems all the way from prevention to intervention to treatment for students who are struggling?”

Credit spit4science.vcu.edu

So far, 10,000 students have enrolled, and some are playing an even bigger part in the study, taking a class that invites them to pose questions and analyze data to get answers.  Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Salvatore, for example, has been studying the relationship between early life experiences and romances later in life.  A lousy childhood, she finds, can put you at greater risk for emotional problems and substance abuse later in life as can a genetic predisposition.

“On average, 50% or half of the variation in alcohol abuse disorders can be attributed to genetic factors.”

But it turns out that if you have a good romantic relationship, it really can turn your life around.

“We know that being in a higher quality romantic relationship, that moderates your genetic predisposition for alcohol problems.”

Students taking part in the study will be tracked through the years – asked to fill out follow-up surveys.  They’re paid $10 for that information, another ten for their saliva, but the real reward may be learning about how science works and getting to know things about themselves that could be valuable in the years to come.