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Here is How Youths Decide When They've Drunk Enough, Experts Say

  1. Beenthere2Hippie
    COLUMBUS, Ohio --Young people decide whether they've had enough to drink the same way the cruise control on a car "decides" whether to accelerate or hit the brakes.

    That's a preliminary finding in an unusual new study that aims to analyze drinking behavior the way engineers might analyze a mechanical system.

    In two papers to appear in the journal IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics, a team of social workers and engineers at The Ohio State University used mathematical models to help explain the factors that drive alcohol consumption. They found that college students drank until they attained a certain level of drunkenness, and then adjusted the pace of their drinking--sipping versus gulping, for example, or switching to a non-alcoholic beverage -- at different times throughout the night to maintain that level.

    John Clapp, a professor of social work and director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State, has been gathering data on high-risk drinking among college students for more than a decade. He and his colleagues believe that analyzing all that data via engineering methods might reveal relationships among complex factors that would otherwise remain hidden.

    "We're looking for the best points to intervene strategically, so that we can aid a person in their decision-making and potentially derail problematic behaviors," Clapp said.

    As a first test of their idea, Clapp asked Ohio State engineer Kevin Passino to re-analyze data that Clapp and his former research team at San Diego State University collected on students at parties and bars in San Diego. They performed portable alcohol breath tests, and over several studies, they accumulated blood alcohol content (BAC) data on nearly 1,500 students. Passino, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of Ohio State's Humanitarian Engineering Center, searched the data for patterns that might resemble a typical engineering problem. He and former doctoral student Luis Felipe Giraldo were surprised by what they found.

    "The way the students made decisions about drinking actually resembled the single most common feedback controller that's used in engineering," Passino said. "It's called a proportional-derivative controller, and it measures how far a system has moved from a particular set point and adjusts accordingly. It's the same as cruise control on a car."

    At the start of the evening, the researchers quizzed the students about how drunk they intended to get, and then they tested the students' BAC several times over the following hours. The data showed that students who reported wanting to feel "buzzed" adjusted their consumption to maintain a BAC around 0.05, while those who said they planned to get "very drunk" averaged around 0.1.

    BAC is a percentage measure of alcohol in the blood, and in Ohio as in California and the rest of the United States, it's illegal to drive a car with a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

    To Clapp, knowing that the patterns fit a particular engineering controller means that the researchers can apply new types of equations to dig deeper into the data they've already collected, and take a more dynamic view of students' drinking behaviors in the future.

    "We have a sense of what factors influence drinking behavior as is occurs naturally, but we don't really understand how it all works together. It's as if we've been taking Polaroid snapshots of these really complex behaviors, and now we'll be able to capture high-definition movies," he said.

    This first study provides a proof of concept for a new study about to begin on the Ohio State Columbus campus, one that will create very large and complex data sets on the scale of "big data." Sixty Ohio State seniors -- belonging to several different social groups consisting of friends who go out drinking together on the weekends -- will wear trans-dermal blood alcohol monitors so that the researchers can get more precise data on how their BAC varies over an entire night out. The monitors are being provided by SCRAM Systems, a company that supplies similar ankle bracelets to law enforcement. The sensors are about the size of a hockey puck, and measure BAC through the wearer's sweat.

    The students, who are all of legal drinking age, will wear the ankle bracelets when they go out on the weekends. But for the entire two-week study, they will also wear personal fitness monitors so that researchers can track data such as their sleep and exercise habits. In surveys transmitted to their cell phones at random times throughout the study, the students will answer questions about their health and well-being, such as their emotional state at that moment.

    "We could track as many as 5,000 different variables per person during that two-week period, plus all the social interactions between the people in the different groups," Clapp said. "We're hoping to get a very rich, complex dataset, and most social science methods wouldn't lend themselves well to untangling all of that."

    Passino described how an engineer might untangle it.

    "One approach would be to take this complex system, which is composed of a set of people with their drinking habits and their social interactions with each other, and try to make a model that's as realistic as possible, and then analyze that model for something called controllability," he said. "Controllability is just what you'd think: How easy is it for you to change this system? You can test for controllability with mathematics, and we're hoping that doing so will suggest some ideas for an intervention."

    Their ultimate goal is to develop a smartphone app that will alert a young person--or anyone else, for that matter--when they've had enough to drink.

    Clapp envisions that users could tell the app whether they want to moderate their drinking on a particular evening. Based on transdermal BAC, the app could then send an alert to suggest that the user eat something or drink a non-alcoholic beverage before they have another alcoholic one. Smartphones already know a user's location and whether they drove to get there, so the app could also remind a drinker not to drive home and help with calling a cab.

    Soon, law enforcement-style ankle bracelets won't be necessary for such an app to work.

    The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently sponsored a design competition for an easy-to-wear commercial BAC biosensor. The winner, called the BACtrack Skyn, will go on sale in January 2017 for around $99. It resembles a fitness monitor and communicates with a smartphone via Bluetooth. While such devices could potentially provide researchers with an abundance of data, there are very few universities currently equipped to analyze it with a hybrid social work-engineering approach. Clapp knows of only two other research groups -- one at Washington University at Saint Louis and the other at the University of Southern California -- with similar collaborations.


    Study co-author Giraldo is now an assistant professor of electrical and electronics engineering at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. Other collaborators include Danielle Ruderman, a doctoral student in social work at Ohio State, and Hugo Gonzalez, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering.

    Ohio State University/Oct. 17, 2016
    Photo: Daniel Ruderman
    Newshawk Crew

    Author Bio

    BT2H is a retired news editor and writer from the NYC area who, for health reasons, retired to a southern US state early, and where BT2H continues to write and to post drug-related news to DF.


  1. AKA_freckles
    That BAC biosensor is such a good idea.

    I feel like this study is making a simple thing sound complicated, though. Aren't they essentially saying that people who didn't plan to get drunk for the most part didnt? I mean am I missing something?

    My problem is I have absolutely no awareness once I start. Like, it Never really occurs to me to stop. I will always plan on one (or two) and the next thing I know I'm waking up on someone's couch.

    I would like to see a study about that.
  2. idfma
    Freckles, you crack me up, and you right too. Say it, girl.

    Basically, they are saying the people they've chosen to monitor don't know how to drink.

    Me, I don't really drink anymore. Maybe a beer after work once every six months. Occasionally have some good whiskey.

    On the other hand, when I was 22, it didn't occur to me to regulate my intake of alcohol like a 'cruise control'--what the fuck is that even? I drank what was in front of me until it was gone, like everybody else who was there drinking with me. I guess that's a form of cruise control--the gas pedal was just all the way on the floor. :)

    Yeah, my college days didn't involve any 'regulating' our intake. And, hey, I'm a geek and all, but these motherfuckers might want to analyze the population they are testing.

    If every one of them is wearing a pocket protector along with the transdermal whosit, we might not have ourselves a representative sample. There's nothing wrong with pocket protectors, but if you're hanging out with a bunch of people who are rationally and mathematically regulating their alcohol intake throughout the evening to 'optimize their experience',--even subconsciously!-- you might need to get out more, because, let's be real here: they aren't doing it like most people are.

    Drinking is about completely wiping out the existential pain (and I use that term loosely) of the emptiness of life--not much to optimize there, Poindexter.

    As I read the article, I kept thinking, 'somebody needs to teach these kids how to drink for fuck's sake.'

    The tone of this story reminds me of a television show where a bunch of software engineers spent an entire night trying to figure out most efficient way for one person to jack off an auditorium full of people. Nobody really does that shit, do they?

    Sure there are people who pace themselves, and regulate their intake, so they don't puke. They just aren't in college, unless, apparently, they are engineering students.

    What's that you say? Proportional-derivative controller? What's that got to do with me? Keep 'em coming, and who wants a shot?

    At least that's the last thing I remember...:s
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