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Rising Star Dr. Natalie Ceballos

Dr. Natalie Ceballos:
Discovering new information about addiction

Dr. Natalie Ceballos

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Dr. Natalie Ceballos

Despite the widely publicized health risks, alcohol use is prevalent on college campuses, where studies show that some 40-45 percent of students engage in heavy drinking each year and more than one-third smoke cigarettes.

Because lifetime drinkers and smokers often begin their risky behaviors as college students, Dr. Natalie Ceballos is interested in identifying factors that influence students’ decisions to use or abuse alcohol and tobacco. Several of her studies have potential application in the prevention and treatment of addiction.

How does alcohol look when students are stressed?

In a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Ceballos and colleague Dr. Reiko Graham (Psychology; see "Rising Star Dr. Reiko Graham") are studying students’ reactions to pictures of alcohol after stress.

“A lot of people drink to relieve stress,” Ceballos said. “Students who tell us that they expect alcohol to calm them down are having a different response to the alcohol pictures than the students who don’t expect alcohol to calm them down. The ones who drink to relieve stress pay more attention to pictures of alcohol after stress than people who don’t drink to relieve stress.”

Ceballos and Graham discovered this new information by using ERP, a technique that measures the brain’s electrical activity in response to stimuli before and after stress. To create a stress response in test subjects, Ceballos has students perform mathematical calculations under a time constraint.

Studies with recovering alcoholics

As an extension of their work with students, Ceballos and Graham have conducted a unique study of how recovering alcoholics in a regional treatment facility responded to pictures of alcohol. When new patients entered the facility, Ceballos and Graham showed them pictures of alcohol and measured the bloodflow in certain areas of the brain, using Doppler ultrasound. Over a four-week period, the subjects were retested to see whether, during recovery, their sensitivity decreased to pictures of alcohol. Their preliminary results suggest that alcohol dependent patients who view drinking as a way to increase sociability and confidence are more likely to have attentional biases to alcohol, even during recovery.

“Out in the world, you see ads for alcohol everywhere,” Ceballos said. “If we find that recovering alcoholics remain sensitive to pictures of alcohol as cues for drinking, then doctors can help them come up with plans for how to react when they have cravings from the visual cues.”

Gender, body image and smoking

Studies have shown that smokers often use tobacco to control weight and/or reduce stress. To learn what role gender might play in the relationship between smoking and body image, Ceballos and undergraduate student Brittny Wiese conducted a study of college students, in which they found that three groups of people—normal-weight and overweight women and overweight men—were more likely than normal-weight men to use tobacco for relieving stress and building self-confidence.