The Michigan Longitudinal Study (MLS)

Since 1985, the Michigan Longitudinal Study (MLS) has yielded invaluable information about the causes of substance abuse by following a large group of individuals from early childhood into early adulthood, and their biological parents from early adulthood into late middle age. It has looked at the impact that alcoholism and other drug use, poverty and educational disadvantage have on individuals and families, and the capacity of some children to be resilient in the face of these issues, while others succumb to the risk burden.

The MLS is the world's longest-running high-risk study on the development of substance abuse, and involves more than 2,200 individuals in over 460 families. Recently, the study yielded the first-ever evidence that specific indicators in early childhood can predict an adult's likelihood of being diagnosed with alcoholism, a finding that is only possible because the study has tracked the life course of a generation of children, including children of alcoholics, and a comparison group from families without a history of alcoholism. A third generation is now being studied: the children of the people who were small children when the study began.

The study is led by Robert Zucker, Ph.D., former director of the University of Michigan Addiction Center, and currently a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology at Michigan. In recent years Mary Heitzeg, Ph.D. and Brian Hicks, Ph.D. have been co-directors, and also direct a number of offshoot projects utilizing MLS work for their project base. The project involves collaborations with colleagues in 9 different departments and schools at the University of Michigan, as well as with scientists at Brown University, Florida International University, Idaho State, Michigan State University, Oregon Health and Science University and the University of North Carolina It has been funded continuously since 1987 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. With an annual budget of $2.5 million, it involves more than a dozen scientists, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and around 50 staff members.

The MLS is assessing the many factors that contribute to the origins of alcohol abuse and dependence, of mental health issues and other substance-abuse issues in people with alcohol problems, and of behavior issues within children of alcoholics. It uses genetic, brain-imaging, behavioral, social, demographic and economic assessments, and has led to more than 213 scientific papers. Its findings have been critical in shaping the realization that alcoholism is a developmental disorder that has its roots in early childhood, and that efforts to combat alcoholism and other substance abuse in the community need to focus on prevention among at-risk youth before problems emerge.