Researcher profile: Ingrid Nylander

Addiction researcher with a focus on alcohol

Why do 1.3 million Swedes drink more than they should do? And how can society help them not to develop an addiction? Ingrid Nylander, Professor of Pharmacology, has dedicated her life as a researcher to investigating the negative aspects of alcohol but it is not always easy to find the answers.

“The worst thing is at dinner parties when people who don’t know me ask me what I work with. Sooner or later, questions come up and unfortunately my answers can really put a dampener on things. I do drink alcohol myself - I enjoy a glass of wine - but I am always very aware of how much I consume,” says Ingrid Nylander, professor of pharmacology at Uppsala University.

As an addiction researcher with a focus on alcohol, Ingrid Nylander is a well-known name in the newspapers. Not least when the holiday month of July is over and journalists want an answer to the eternal question: How do you regain control over your drinking when it’s time to go back to work?

“We know that just over half of all Swedes drink more frequently and copiously when they are on holiday. For most people, it’s not a problem but for the 1.3 million people who are already in the risk zone in their everyday lives, there is a serious risk that their summer habits will continue for the rest of the year. The best thing is to be aware of your own alcohol consumption and that of the people around you. There are several good self-tests on the internet that can be of help.”

The questions Ingrid Nylander hopes she will be able to answer sometime are why people develop an addiction and what is the best way to treat it. Her research is facilitated by a number of laboratory rats whose behaviour when offered alcohol often seems to be similar to that of humans.

“When I came to Uppsala University, I was given access to experimental animals who had grown up in either a natural environment or a stressful environment. We soon noticed how the latter group preferred alcohol to water and since then, I have devoted my professional life to investigating how our childhood and adolescent years shape our brain and susceptibility to substance abuse.”

Ingrid Nylander defines alcohol addiction as a chronic disease which at best can be treated but which is still impossible to cure. Triggering factors are a result of a combination of environmental and genetic aspects and therefore no one is safe.

“Research can show how a young brain is affected by the home environment and intake of drugs, and how these factors influence the risk of a person developing an addiction in the future. On the other hand, we know that everyone, even when they are young, is affected to different degrees in difficult environments. So yes, sometimes it feels as if we are looking for a needle in a haystack but then suddenly another piece falls into place.”

Even though this is a subject that has always aroused people’s emotions and generated debate, the results of alcohol research are nevertheless received relatively smoothly. As a matter of fact, Ingrid Nylander’s experiences of giving talks all over Sweden have been positive. She was recently thanked by social services employees because she had given them a solid scientific base on which to take tough decisions concerning moving children from dysfunctional homes to protective foster family homes. Another important audience who are eager to listen are adolescents.

“We are often asked to visit schools and talk about how alcohol affects a young person’s brain. The pupils listen with interest and it’s obvious they appreciate being given facts without moralising. We can also see that young people in Sweden today drink less and become intoxicated less frequently. This is a trend that will hopefully have a sustainable effect since we tend to retain our adolescent habits as we move into adulthood.”

Alongside her research, Ingrid Nylander devotes a lot of time to pedagogy. As the vice dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy’s first-cycle courses and study programmes, she is involved in almost all course activities.

“Even as a doctoral student, I felt a sense of wonder when I saw students mature and have aha experiences and that is still one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most. However, in the last few years, the student group as a whole has changed rapidly which means we teachers must find new and effective ways of teaching.”

Above all, she sees that students are more anxious about failing and they also have a great need for affirmation. These observations were confirmed in the 2017 survey of Uppsala students’ psychosocial work environment where stress, anxiety and worry seem to be an increasingly integrated part of everyday life.

“One contributing factor could be that many students try to learn things off by heart instead of understanding them. With that strategy, things will never improve no matter how hard you try so now we are testing mentor talks to boost the things the students do right and help them to improve the things that are not going so well. Participation is voluntary and perhaps we don’t reach the students who need this the most but those who have tried it out are very pleased.”

In January 2018, Ingrid Nylander turned 61 but with what she describes as “the best job in the world”, she is in no hurry to retire. Moreover, there are still many needles to find: What exactly happens in our brain in a risky environment? Can damaged brains be rehabilitated? And how can we give better help to people who are trying to break an addiction?

“Even though the World Health Organisation ranks alcohol as one of the main causes of ill health in the western world, we still do not have sufficiently effective forms of treatment and medication, not least to prevent relapses. Thank goodness Sweden has a sustainable alcohol policy which more and more EU countries are now trying to adopt and I wish more people appreciated Systembolaget and its opening hours. We must respect the fact that many people are not able to handle their drinking and we are probably all benefiting from the fact that it is at least a little bit difficult to buy alcohol.”

Text: Magnus Alsne
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Facts: Ingrid Nylander

Title Professor of pharmacology at Uppsala University
Age 61
Family Husband Olle, two children – all three pharmacists – and grandchildren
Lives In Gamla Gottsunda
On her bedside table Elena Ferrante’s series of novels “My Brilliant Friend”; definitely a great read.
Latest compliment From a student at one of my courses who said it was the best course she had ever done
If I have a day off I go for a long walk and socialise with my family.

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