Research Spotlights: October 2021

Reported domestic violence crimes decreased in Chicago during the 2020 COVID-19 stay-at-home order but may not reflect true levels of violence

During the COVID-19 pandemic, did domestic violence increase or decrease? A study funded by NIA and NHLBI aimed to answer this question. According to the literature, domestic violence is often correlated with social and financial stress. Researchers hypothesized that stress and emotional strain may exacerbate negative coping mechanisms, leading to interpersonal violence. Accordingly, COVID-19 presents a population-wide stressor that could be correlated with an increase in reported domestic violence.

The study was conducted in Chicago, Illinois which is composed of 77 distinct community areas divided into north, west, and south sides. The north side is majority White race/ethnicity (54.2% White, 27.0% Hispanic/Latinx, 6.8% Black), the south side is majority Black race/ethnicity (68.4% Black, 13.1% White, 1.7% Hispanic/Latinx) and the west side is more racially/ethnically heterogeneous (45.3% Hispanic/Latinx, 32.6% Black, and 17.5% White). The researchers categorized domestic crime reports from Chicago Police Department’s internet-based law enforcement and reporting system into three types: (1) domestic violence (2) property crimes, and (3) other crimes.

They found, on average, that the rate of domestic violence police reports decreased by 21.8 crimes per 100,000 persons per month, while the rates of police reports of domestic property crime and other crimes did not change significantly. The White majority communities did not experience any change in the rate of police crime reports whereas Black majority community areas experienced a substantial decrease by 45.2 crimes per 100 000 persons per month. Contrary to what one might expect given the intense stress caused by COVID-19, the Black majority communities experienced a significant decrease in domestic violence reports by 40.8 per 100,000 persons per month. However, the rates of general homicides in Black communities increased. Concurrently, there was a reduction in domestic violence resource availability, predominately in mental health and personal safety resources such as survivor support services, across all communities with larger decreases in Black majority communities as compared to White.

The researchers note that the decrease in domestic violence reports was observed despite increased domestic violence hotline traffic and pandemic-related stressors. The apparent decrease in reports of domestic violence during this time may be reflective of a true decrease or may not be an accurate portrayal of the true level of domestic violence due to two possible reasons. First, a lack of resources for supporting victims of domestic violence which may have signaled to victims/potential victims that reporting crime might would not be met with police action. Second, there was a nationwide change in awareness of police brutality against communities of color and a decrease in trust and increase in fear of police which may have made Blacks less likely to report domestic violence. The researchers hypothesize that the unexpected finding in Black communities may not reflect true change in domestic violence incidence but is related to the underreporting of domestic violence because of reluctance to involve the police and the stark reduction in domestic violence resources.

Baidoo L, Zakrison TL, Feldmeth G, Lindau ST, Tung EL. Domestic Violence Police Reporting and Resources During the 2020 COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Order in Chicago, Illinois. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(9):e2122260. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.22260

Multiple studies suggest that social alcohol use decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic but non-social alcohol use in young adults and adolescences increased

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted several domains of everyday life, including alcohol and drug use. A publication (Pelham, et al. 2021) from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, funded by NIMH and NIDA, monitored self-reported substance use patterns and anxiety levels of 7,842 adolescents for six months after the first stay-at-home orders. Researchers found that alcohol use in adolescents declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, but rates of nicotine use, and prescription drug misuse rose, potentially due to the decrease in social settings and ability to hide these types of substances around family. In adolescents whose families were experiencing a loss of income or maternal hardship during the pandemic, substance use was higher than pre-pandemic levels and was paired with heightened stress, depression, and anxiety.

Another publication (Fruehwirth, et al. 2021) funded by NICHD and others found a similar effect in first-year college students that were surveyed before and after the pandemic to analyze the impact of the pandemic on drinking behaviors while accounting for pre-existing alcohol use and social factors. Consistent with the article by Pelham and colleagues, compared to pre-pandemic levels, students reported less alcohol drinking (54.2% pre-pandemic to 46% mid-pandemic) and less binge drinking episodes (35.5% pre-pandemic to 24.6% mid-pandemic). Decreased alcohol use was attributed to a decrease in social engagement due to social distancing efforts, but difficulties with distanced learning and ability to cope with the pandemic increased alcohol use for some students who were already consuming alcohol pre-pandemic.

This pattern of decreased alcohol use in adolescents did not necessarily hold true for adults. In a study funded by NIDA, Castaldelli-Maia and collegues (2021) found that during the first sixth months of the COVID-19 pandemic alcohol sales in retail stores increased by 20% compared to pre-pandemic levels while alcohol sales in restaurants and bars decreased by 27%. As increased alcohol sales in retail stores is indicative of higher drinking at home, this may lead to higher alcohol consumption as a dysfunctional way of coping with stress and uncertainty. In addition, increased drinking at home can exacerbate the effects of social isolation, including acts of domestic violence, as well as increase risk for alcohol related adverse health outcomes.

These three studies suggest that alcohol use in social settings decreased during the pandemic for both youth, college students and adults but increased in response to stress or as a means to cope with the pandemic in non-social settings. Some youth increased their use of nicotine and prescription drug use in non-social settings, which may have been related to activity restrictions and that these substances were easier to obtain and hide from family during the pandemic.

Pelham WE et al. Early Adolescent Substance Use Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Survey in the ABCD Study Cohort. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2021;69(3):390-397. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.06.015

Fruehwirth JC, Gorman BL, Perreira KM. The Effect of Social and Stress-Related Factors on Alcohol Use Among College Students During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2021; 69(4):557–565. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.06.016

Castaldelli-Maia JM, Segura LE, Martins SS. The concerning increasing trend of alcohol beverage sales in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol. 2021; 96:37-42. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2021.06.004

Chronic social isolation signals starvation and reduces sleep in Drosophila

Chronic social isolation and loneliness can have major impacts on health, including altering sleep quality. Reduced sleep quality is a factor that has been shown to be related to loneliness and poor health outcomes. However, it is currently unknown how normal sleep patterns are impacted by social isolation. The goal of the NIGMS and NINDS funded research was to investigate the impact of chronic social isolation in fruit flies (Drosophila) to better understand potential genes that may influence the changes in behavior.

Fruit flies are a dynamic social animal model. They have collective behaviors that contribute to environmental sensing, foraging, feeding, mating, etc., making them ideal models for studying how a lack of social relationships is perceived and represented in the brain. Additionally, previous studies have shown that social experience affects their sleep needs.

The researchers used quantitative behavioral analysis and transcriptome profiling to differentiate between brain states associated with acute and chronic social isolation. Flies were kept in standard fly food bottles (~200 flies per bottle) for 3–5 days to acquire social experience. For social isolation, flies were then grouped into 1 fly per vial for social isolation and 25 flies per vial for group enrichment. Group sizes were also varied in additional experiments (2, 5, 25, 200 flies). On day 1, day 3, day 5 or day 7, isolated or group-housed flies were assessed for sleep measurements, feeding measurements or RNA-seq experiments.

Results showed that flies that experienced chronic social isolation (7 days), but not acute social isolation (1 day), had a significant reduction in total sleep and daytime sleep. Additionally, chronic social isolation altered the expression of metabolic genes and induced a brain state associated with starvation, despite the flies always having free access to food. Therefore, chronically isolated flies began exhibiting signs of sleep loss and an overconsumption of food. The researchers identified a brain region that promotes a reduction in sleeping and an increase in feeding following chronic social isolation. Stimulation of neurons in this brain region of flies that had only received acute social isolation was enough to produce sleep loss and increase feeding in these flies.

Interestingly, this study’s findings of chronically isolated flies exhibiting sleep loss accompanied by overconsumption of food is similar to findings in humans regarding sleep disturbances and loneliness-associated hyperphagia. This study supports that fruit flies provide a consistent way to begin to understand specific patterns of genes, brain activity and behavioral states resulting from chronic social isolation.

Li W, Wang Z, Syed S, et al. Chronic social isolation signals starvation and reduces sleep in Drosophila. Nature 597, 239–244 (2021).