Social research takes on societal illsBrittany Rauch
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have been at the forefront in studying youth violence and how to prevent it. As a result, they have been able to craft school safety programs that have been used as models nationwide.
At Colorado State University, researchers have developed healthy building initiatives that may improve the health of those who use them every day and save energy at the same time.
And a groundbreaking, long-running study of twins at CU-Boulder, is providing important insight into substance abuse and learning disabilities.
Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development
Does violence prevention start in the womb? Could the tragic mass killings in Aurora or in Newtown, Conn., have been prevented by early use of programs to prevent violence, delinquency and drug abuse?
CU-Boulder researcher Beverly Kingston and others are working to find answers to those questions. Kingston is director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at CU.
The Center is currently involved in a collaborative effort called Steps to Success, aiming to reduce youth violence in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver. Steps to Success is funded by a five-year, $6.2 million agreement with the Academic Centers of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The project includes community surveys and implementation of several programs; one is a nurse-family partnership where nurses are assigned to pregnant mothers in high-risk neighborhoods before their children are born, and another provides intensive family therapy for older students who are already having difficulty in the school and community.
“If you really did this with fidelity, we could reduce violence in this country by probably 30 percent,” Kingston said.
The center at CU-Boulder provides resources for effective programs in bullying prevention, school climate surveys and additional initiatives on its website, http://www.colorado.edu/cspv.
At Colorado State University, researcher Jeni Cross, a sociologist, is involved in a multiphase study of a new correctional facility in Fort Collins, assessing the impact of integrated design.
Along with her colleague Tara O’Connor Shelley, Cross will be working with the building’s occupants, both offenders and employees, and with operators of the building to assess energy use as well as the building’s impacts on occupants’ well-being and job performance.
The research team hopes that the new LEED-certified building, owned and operated by Larimer County, will positively impact the overall health of the occupants. Known as the Alternative Sentencing Building, the facility houses work-release prisoners. LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) provides a rating system to evaluate the environmental characteristics of buildings.
Cross said data from the previous building used to house these inmates showed the people sentenced to short-term time there, on work-release programs, had negative general health trends.
“Their sleep patterns are very disturbed, it is difficult for them to get to sleep, they get disturbed easily while they are there,” she said. “It looks as if the old building was not very conducive to health.”
Cross also has conducted a number of studies in schools.
In 2007 she compared the electricity use of two Fort Collins high schools, Rocky Mountain High School, built in 1973, and LEED-certified Fossil Ridge High School, built in 2004. Her goal was to understand how the 34-year-old school was able to outperform the LEED building and achieve a 50 percent reduction in electricity use.
The study revealed that charismatic teachers at Rocky Mountain were energizing students about conservation as a cultural value of the school.
“They were setting behavioral expectations in the school,” Cross said. “There were a number of people, mainly the leaders, who were communicating with people on a regular basis and encouraging them to change their routines and behaviors.”
Rocky Mountain generated $40,370 in total operations savings between 2006 and 2007. The results of this study encouraged another school, Poudre High School, a non-LEED school, to reduce its electricity consumption by 50 percent by adopting similar behavior and leadership strategies.
Colorado Twin Registry Studies at CU
CU-Boulder’s Institute for Behavioral Genetics has developed one of the largest registries of twins in the United States, enabling study of substance abuse and other topics.
The Center for Antisocial Drug Dependence, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is focusing on genetic influences on antisocial drug dependence and on its treatment.
John K. Hewitt, director of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, along with the Center for Antisocial Drug Dependence, has been using the twins to help research genetic influences on vulnerability and subsequent drug use, primarily in adolescence.
Since 1997, the center has been following a group of individuals who were recruited as adolescents from the Longitudinal Twin Study and Community Twin Study.
Hewitt said some genetic research indicates there is a general vulnerability to “behavioral disinhibition.” This hallmark is defined as a combination of poor control with impulsive behavior, a response to immediate reward, and a tendency to be less concerned about adverse consequences.
This tendency seems to predispose teenagers to a wide range of risky behaviors, Hewitt said. Previous research indicated that certain genes predisposed some people to addictions to certain drugs, such as alcohol. Newer research indicates a specific gene is not at fault, but blames a broader genetic predisposition to behaviors that cause poor impulse control, among other things.
“It’s not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is a different way of approaching the role of genetic risks in substance abuse,” Hewitt said. “So we see it now as a more general vulnerability to poor behavioral control, which includes among its manifestations the use of not one but many different substances.”
The center is in its third wave and last year of data collection for the twins — young adolescents, older adolescents and young adults. Hewitt is hoping to have data analysis results within the next two years.
The twin registry has been collecting data on twins since 1967 and at last count 17,136 individuals were registered in its database. Approximately 9,000 of them had participated in one or more research study. The center recruits identical and fraternal twins — the difference between the similarity of the two reveals how much genes are influencing behavior.
Additional research and resources surrounding the Colorado Twin Registry and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics can be found at http://www.colorado.edu/ibg.
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