What does an energy drink do for your alcohol-driven buzz? NKU lab has some of the answers

Unique research has earned international attention

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- It’s a typical Monday afternoon on Northern Kentucky University’s campus, and undergraduate Clare Mearns is doling out alcohol and energy drinks to a fellow student while closely studying the effects.

It’s just another day at the office for Mearns and a handful of other student research assistants at the university’s Alcohol and Energy Drink Research Laboratory.

Most have heard about the potential dangers associated with mixing alcohol and caffeine-laden energy drinks, but what people don't know is that much of the science behind those warnings has come from NKU's lab.

Dr. Cecile Marczinski, NKU professor of psychology, specializes in using human, lab-based studies to examine the effects of caffeine and alcohol. Under her direction, the research lab has uncovered a variety of significant findings while observing the cognitive and behavioral effects of acute doses of alcohol and energy drinks in human volunteers.

Marczinski's realm of research is anything but ordinary. 

“I’m one of just a few people in the U.S. doing this kind of lab-based research," Marczinski noted. “It’s pretty unique.”

Some of her most significant discoveries help explain why mixing energy drinks with alcohol is so much riskier than drinking alcohol alone. According to her studies at the lab, mixing the two enhances the desire to drink alcohol for a longer period of time, which could lead to binge drinking and alcohol dependence. It also leads to a disconnect between subjective state and impairment (how intoxicated drinkers feel versus how intoxicated and impaired they really are), her research suggests.

And while heavily intoxicated people eventually stop drinking because they get drowsy and fall asleep, that’s not always the case when they add an energy drink into the mix, according to Marczinski.

“Basically, those things that would normally help people keep their drinking within a safe range go out the window when you add a stimulant, like caffeine,” she said. “It makes drinking it a lot riskier.”

So how exactly does Marczinski and her team conduct this kind of research?

The simple answer: They get college kids drunk on alcohol and energy drink mixers and study the effects.

Obviously, the process is a whole lot more complex -- and clinical -- than that and involves screenings to find just the right volunteers for the project and all kinds of safeguards and regulations to ensure their safety. (All of that extra legwork is likely a reason there are so few of these types of studies in the country.)

Participants are paid for their time and undergo a series of detailed tests and questionnaires. Volunteers must sign up for multiple sessions, and two of those require a six-hour time commitment.

The lab has a variety of special gadgets needed to collect the unique data, including driving simulators, equipment to measure balance and check blood-alcohol levels and computers equipped with programs that screen things like impulsivity and cognitive functioning.

The space also has its own private bathroom, where all volunteers are drug-tested prior to being accepted into the study; and includes a comfortable rest area where they stay to sober up before they’re permitted to leave.

In other words, the research lab is totally legit (no Red Bull Margarita Monday work parties for this group), but that doesn’t stop Marczinski and her team from getting some interesting questions about what goes on there.

“We put flyers up around campus, and they definitely generate some questions,” said Mearns, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at NKU. “There’s no party going on in our lab."

"Once (volunteers) come in and see what we’re doing, they understand the importance of this study and its application to the real world,” Mearns said. 

The importance and real-world application of her work has earned Marczinski recognition both within the psychology community and out, according to recent grad and research assistant Caitlin Turner.

“(Marczinski) is at the forefront,” Turner said. “We were all hearing about people who mixed alcohol with energy drinks ending up in the ER, or getting hurt ... or even getting alcohol poisoning, but no one was doing a study to find out why.”

Marczinski’s work is funded, in large part, by the National Institutes of Health.

Her research conducted here in Greater Cincinnati at NKU has made international headlines and aided in FDA investigations relating to alcohol and caffeine consumption. The administration’s verdict: Caffeine is an unsafe food additive when combined with alcohol. As a result, premixed alcoholic energy drink beverages are no longer being sold in the U.S.

Marczinski has also served as an expert witness on the topic in both civil and criminal trials. She has been published several times for her work and authored two books.

For her, it all serves as reinforcement that the work she’s doing is important and relevant.

“That’s when science is really good,” Marczinski said. “When it’s connected to the real world, outside of your discipline, and addresses questions the general public wants to know.”

As her work continues to expand, it’s leading to more discoveries and avenues for further study.

Her research at the lab uncovered mixing diet energy drinks with alcohol results in higher blood-alcohol levels. Participants in the study who were given a diet energy drink mixed with alcohol got intoxicated faster and ended up more intoxicated overall than those who consumed non-diet energy drinks.

Additionally, Marczinski studies the correlation between the frequency of alcohol-related posts on social media and potential problem drinking in young people.

“If someone is posting a lot about alcohol, is that a red flag,” she said. “Some kind of screening measure could be incredibly helpful for parents and family members.”

Marczinski has been a psychology professor at NKU for nearly a decade. She’s originally from Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in cognitive psychology.

She received some post-doctorate training as a research fellow at the University of Kentucky, where she studied cognition in the context of alcohol.

That’s what led her to her current research interests.

While she is known across the world for her contributions in those areas, the NKU community most reveres Marczinski for her passion for teaching and commitment to providing research opportunities for undergraduate students. 

Mearns recognizes working with Marczinski is a unique opportunity. 

“Her willingness to trust us with her work speaks volumes about her commitment to undergraduate research," Mearns said. 

For details about Marczinski’s research and work at the laboratory, visit the lab’s website.

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