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Kenneth Warren, Ph.D.


Kenneth Warren headshotKenneth Warren, Ph.D., is deputy director
of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Warren recently won the RSA 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Research Society on Alcoholism’s annual meeting in Bellevue, Washington during June 2014.

Writer Sherry Wasilow interviewed Dr. Warren from his office at Bethesda, MD.



SW
: How did you begin your work in the field of alcohol studies?

KW:  My graduate and initial postdoctoral training was in the field of biochemistry, studying metabolic control mechanism[s] (http://quizlet.com/18624217/2-metabolic-control-mechanisms-slides-1-64-flash-cards/).  In a second postdoctoral position, I researched birth defect disorders that result from errors in metabolism.  I subsequently worked on metabolic control issues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and in 1976 I transferred to NIAAA to take responsibility for the extramural research programs on the biomedical aspects of alcohol use and abuse.  These included not just the disorder commonly referred to as alcoholism – now called “alcohol use disorder” – but also all of the organ disease consequences of inappropriate or excessive alcohol use.

SW: How did you arrive at your current research focus?

KW:  Almost immediately upon joining NIAAA, I became very interested in clinical reports that had appeared only three years earlier, describing a condition called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) (https://depts.washington.edu/fasdpn/htmls/fasd-fas.htm).  I was quite surprised by these reports because even though I had worked in the birth defects field earlier, I had not heard that alcohol could cause birth defects.  It was very clear that the public was also unaware as even obstetric textbooks at that time attested to the safety of alcohol during pregnancy.  This is when my intense interest in developing a program to validate these clinical reports on the existence of FAS was initiated.  Though I had responsibility for many research areas in NIAAA, the understanding of FAS and what became the broader category of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) became my prime focus in the years to come.

At the time I entered the FASD field (mid-to-late 1970s), there lacked general acceptance by the medical community, scientific community, and the public, that alcohol posed risks for the unborn fetus.  kenneth warren quote As the projects we initiated have established the basis for FASD, I have stayed committed to this area.  As my areas of responsibility have grown – now Deputy Director, and previously serving for five years as Acting Director – I have needed to broaden my focus to many different areas of alcohol research, however, I have always continued to focus as much as I could on FASD.

There remain many challenges regarding FASD.  One, more precisely establishing the prevalence of FASD in the U.S. and other countries around the world, particularly in countries where there is a high level of alcohol use by pregnant women.  Two, improving diagnostic capability for FASD, including the use of computer-aided 3D facial imaging and more rapid systematic neurobehavioral testing.  We also need to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms by which alcohol elicits deficits; uncover linkages between specific sites of injury in the brain to the corresponding neurobehavioral problems; improve interventions to aid the lives of those effected by prenatal alcohol; and develop better preventive approaches to reduce alcohol use during pregnancy, especially among populations and in countries where knowledge about the risks of drinking during pregnancy are not yet appreciated.

 

 

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