Massive VCU research project uses spit to learn about behavior - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Massive VCU research project uses spit to learn about behavior

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

Why is it that some young people can control their use drugs and alcohol while others get into serious trouble?

That is the focus of a massive research study at VCU.  A study that uses as its building block a substance we all have and probably take for granted.

That substance is spit and researchers at VCU are using spit to farm the DNA of thousands of students to track their behavior during their time on campus, hoping to break a genetic code that could change the way we view drugs and alcohol.

Brandon D'angelo Perez Harris sees it all the time.

"I think it is part of, I guess and ugly truth about college," he said.  

It is not news that college students drink- and often times to excess. But at VCU the college is taking a unique approach to figuring how the behavior directly impacts student life.

Brandon - a young man who hopes to be a doctor- is a part of the study.

"Things like this have to be done so they can make advances and learn," he said.

And that contribution is a unique one. It involved filling out a survey and contributing.. Spit.

"So there is actually multiple goals," explains Dr. Danielle Dick the lead researcher of the *spit for science* project. She hopes to collect the DNA of thousands of students and track their behavior for four years.

"We are trying to find genes that tell us why some people are more at risk for addictions then other,"  she said. "We're not all equally at risk."

And that is where the spit comes in. VCU researchers are taking that DNA and tracking it with surveys that will help them draw parallels in addictive behaviors. At the same time they will learn more about the role drugs and booze play on a college campus.

"We know that risky patterns of alcohol use and mental health concerns like eating disorders, depression are all things that can be prevalent on college campuses," said Dr. Dick.

VCU is a huge university with a diverse student population making it ideal for a study like this.

But getting college students to do anything can be tough. Tulsi Shah and others were convinced with a t-shirt and 10 bucks.

"Well they kind of had an incentive they were going to give you cash if you participated," she said.

And that little bit of green goes a long way- boosting participation in ways that makes this project unparalleled in size and scope.

"It is bigger by a huge order of magnitude," said Dick.

They have collected data on more than 7 thousand students and while the genetic research is just beginning, the survey information is already paying dividends.

"This is an opportunity to take expertise that exist at VCU and use it in a way that can feedback and benefit our students."

Brandon knows he is just one person- but he hopes his little bit of spit goes a long way.

"It's cool because they give you the opportunity to learn a little bit more about yourself and hopefully we'll get to know a little bit more about our student population," he said.

A big project- with a big goal.. Built one spit of saliva at time.

And what about privacy? VCU has gone to extraordinary links to de-identify the DNA. Basically each student's information gets linked to a number not a name, with numerous layers of security to prevent the name and number from ever being linked.

Copyright 2014 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved

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