How Emerging Concerns about Field Sobriety Testing May Help Us Understand the Abuse Potential of Alcohol

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Northern Kentucky University
Americans are struggling with substance use disorders more than ever before. For alcohol use, comparisons of nationally representative survey data from 2001 to 2012 indicated that U.S. adults have increased both risky drinking and rates of alcohol use disorders (Grant et al., 2017). These increases in drinking have paralleled the increases in opioid-related deaths that have become a public health crisis (Brady et al., 2016). The purpose of this talk is to highlight how results from Dr. Marczinski’s lab in the Department of Psychological Science can help us better understand why people abuse alcohol and other drugs of abuse. The human and animal literature demonstrates that the acute administration of alcohol reliably impairs the ability to balance without swaying when standing (Zoethout et al., 2012). Since alcohol-induced increases in body sway contribute to feelings of instability when walking, motor impairments that are experienced after drinking alcohol appear to provide social drinkers with feedback that may contribute to their perceptions of their impairment. For example, the results from a field study revealed that subjective intoxication ratings given by bar patrons were better predicted by motor impairment and not by cognitive impairment, after controlling for current breath alcohol concentration (Celio et al., 2014). In essence, motor impairment (or lack thereof) may indicate intoxication levels. An individual feeling imbalanced while standing or walking may be more likely to self-assess impairment. Also, external assessments of alcohol intoxication heavily emphasize observable motor impairment. The standardized field sobriety test used by police requires an individual to stand on one leg or walk a straight line to detect possible alcohol impairment. A bartender may assess that a patron should no longer be served alcohol after observing the inability to stand up without assistance. Given that we (individually and as a society) rely so heavily on motor impairment to detect intoxication, it is interesting that little is known about the impact of stimulant drugs on prototypical alcohol-induced gross motor impairment. This talk describes findings from two separate 2018 publications from Dr. Marczinski’s lab on the combined effects of alcohol and energy drinks on body sway and other objective and subjective measures relevant to understanding impaired driving. By finding some flaws with the standardized field sobriety tests, she will also highlight how the data actually give us greater understanding about the abuse potential of alcohol. Given that consumers of alcohol mixed with energy drinks (or other stimulant drugs) are more likely to drive while impaired and receive a diagnosis of a substance use disorder when compared to alcohol alone consumers, studying drugs in combination rather than in isolation may be key in improving our understanding of the development of substance use disorders. This research was funded by National Institutes of Health grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network.
Faculty Research, Substance Abuse, Alcohol, Field Sobriety Tests, Laboratory Studies