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Assessing impact of alcohol addiction

Kenneth E. Leonard grew up outside Akron, Ohio, and got all three of his psychology degrees at nearby Kent State University.

So who did the research scientist and director of the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions root for last weekend when the UB football team faced his alma mater?

No contest.

“I’ve lived in Buffalo nearly 28 years, so I’m a Buffalo fan,” Leonard said last week from his Main Street office along the fringe of the downtown Medical Corridor. “I’m a Cleveland football fan unless they’re playing Buffalo. I’m a Pittsburgh fan unless they’re playing Cleveland or Buffalo, so I have it all worked out in my mind.”

The addictions institute – which has taken on several forms since the early 1970s – includes 30 research scientists and more than 100 support staff. Dozens of UB students also help with its work, which is focused on tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse research.

Leonard, 58, of Williamsville, joined the staff in 1986 and has led the institute the last two years. He specializes in the role of alcoholism on young adults, young children and families.

What fascinates you more: The science of alcoholism or the social and personal impact?

I find the history of alcohol and drug use from prehistorical societies to the present to be really fascinating. Nearly every culture on earth has discovered alcohol and had an alcoholic beverage. Many societies have found some substance or another that changes their state of consciousness.

But then I also find neuropsychology interesting, that when a person takes some of these drugs, it overstimulates their pleasure center in such a way that things that gave them pleasure before don’t have the same positive effect.

Is the institute’s research more medical?

No. Most of the treatment research we do here – and we do a lot of treatment research – is more focused on psychological treatments, although we have done research focused on different kinds of medicines that might be helpful in the treatment of alcoholism.

People might be most familiar with the institute because of the ads that you run looking for study subjects.

That constitutes one way that we’re able to identify people who are able to participate in our studies. We’ve also done a variety of other things in terms of phone calls, public mailings, radio ads.

Can somebody who wants to stop drinking come here?

We don’t do any treatment like that here. Our clinic’s just too small. If they fit into one of our clinical trials, we offer treatment at no cost, but it can only be in the context of our clinical trials. ECMC’s clinic is two blocks up.

Can you talk about some of your research?

We’re often aware in adolescence how peers have an impact on an individual’s drinking or drug use behavior, but we noticed that once you started talking about adults, people stopped talking about peers. So this study focused on, as couples get married, the impact of husbands and wives on each other’s drinking behaviors and the influence of their friends on their drinking and drug use behavior. We recruited about 600 couples down in Buffalo as they finished applying for their marriage licenses, asked them if they wanted to fill out questionnaires. They were reimbursed for their time. We assessed them in regard to their drinking and we also asked them about their friends’ and their family’s drinking … and we followed them till their ninth wedding anniversary.

We found an awful lot of things. The first thing we found is that for both husbands and wives, their drinking and drug use behaviors influence their partner’s behaviors. You can demonstrate that over time. You can also demonstrate that friends have an influence, but also that your social network changes after you’re married, and it changes in a way that reinforces whatever drinking patterns that you have. So if you’re a heavier drinker, the next time we assess you, your social network has become a bit more of a heavier drinking network. So you can see even through the 20s and early 30s that heavy drinking behavior is not influenced just from individual factors but from close family factors as well as from friends.

The other thing we discovered in the study was that the impact of that drinking on the relationship really was depending on the configuration of that husband and wife drinking. If you imagine that heavy drinking is bad on a relationship, then you might think if they’re both heavy drinkers then that’s really bad. But what we found was the worse situation was when one person was a heavy drinker and the other was not. What we do see is that, over time, if they’re both heavy drinkers their marital situation is much better.

What would you say to a spouse married less than 10 years about how to cope, and whether to stay, with a heavy drinker?

There are programs that are available that can help you cope with this, and that those programs may in fact help in terms of giving you ideas of how to address your partner’s drinking, as well as give you some insight into the pros and cons of what staying in this relationship are.

How can people plug in to what you’re doing?

They can go to our website,


On the Web: Are alcoholism and drug abuse diseases? See

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