UCLA psychologist looks for new ways to treat alcohol addiction

Lara Ray, professor of psychology at UCLA, has been studying alcohol use disorders since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2008, she established the UCLA Addiction Lab to research medications and other treatments for those who want to quit or reduce their drinking. But a spike in alcohol consumption during the pandemic has brought substance abuse back into the spotlight. Alcohol-related deaths in the US rose 25% to nearly 100,000 in the first year of the pandemic, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health.

Newsroom asked Ray, who became president of the Research Society on Alcoholism this month after serving as president-elect the past year, about the research she is doing to help improve treatments for alcohol abuse.

What do you think the future of treating addiction will look like?

As more treatments are developed and we find them to be more effective, we hope that more and more patients will get to benefit from medications for alcohol use disorders. So, we’re optimistic that medications will be a part of the landscape of addiction recovery for alcohol.

The drinking issue has really become even more prevalent in the past decades. We’ve seen a lot more alcohol-associated deaths in the United States. We know that more than half of liver transplants result from alcohol-related liver disease. We’re really seeing that there is a need to stop drinking problems earlier, so that we can prevent morbidity and mortality.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use, what are the best steps to take?

I have multiple suggestions depending on where people are, what resources they have and how much they are willing to invest in changing. One is a free website designed by the National Institutes of Health to provide a drinker’s checkup, and it’s called Rethinking Drinking. It has calculators to figure out how much you’re really drinking — and information on reducing your drinking. It’s a great resource for people to do a self-assessment. The number one thing that I would really emphasize is for individuals to talk to their primary care providers.

What would you tell people who are hesitant to find or ask for help due to alcoholism-related stigma?

We have at least four or five clinical trials going on. Individuals in the community are more than welcome to call us to see if they want to participate in one of our clinical studies. Basically, we want to help individuals develop healthier coping strategies, not depend on alcohol as an unhealthy coping strategy. We want to make everyone feel comfortable — no matter how much they drink, no matter what kinds of problems they have experienced. We want to stay very empathetic and neutral so that in our lab, everyone feels respected, valued and hopeful that they’ll get better.

What are your plans for your upcoming term as president of the Research Society of Alcoholism?

I’m very honored to serve as president because the Research Society on Alcoholism has more than 2,000 members. It’s not a psychology association by any means — it’s an interdisciplinary group that includes physicians, neuroscientists, pharmacologists and psychologists — who are interested in alcohol research. That gives me a lot of perspective beyond just being a psychologist, to think broadly about alcoholism research.

My primary goal is to make the society more inclusive. I’ve been focusing a lot on supporting young researchers and those who have children, so they can come to meetings and participate. The second important mission for me is to use the platform of the society to be more connected with media outlets and to promote the science of alcohol and recovery, so patients are more likely to get treatments that are evidence-based.

Where do you hope your research takes you next?

I really hope that my research and the work we do here at UCLA translate into better standards of clinical care for patients with alcohol use disorder. I hope that we’ll have more treatments that are available, and that we will get providers and patients excited to try these new treatments backed by scientific evidence. I worry that too often, patients and families end up paying a lot for rehab centers or treatments that do not have scientific backing. We need to fill those gaps in care with the science-based treatments that we’re developing.

Folks are welcome to call the lab. We’re always open to anyone who wants to try one of our experimental treatments. They are all highly regulated. Our clinical trials are registered at clinicaltrials.gov and funded by the National Institutes of Health. They have the highest levels of vetting. People don’t pay anything for participating and get compensated for travel time. We will talk to everyone who calls our lab and tell them about our studies. And if they don’t qualify, we’ll also tell them about resources for care.

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