Sensitivity to Alcohol Leads to Greater Risk for Alcoholism

Researchers have long known that individuals with a positive family history of alcoholism (FHP) are at an increased risk themselves for alcoholism. This increased risk may be due to their different reaction to alcohol than individuals with a negative family history of alcoholism (FHN). This study investigated how sensitive individuals with an FHP of type I form of alcoholism — characterized by a relatively late onset of dependence in socially well-adjusted individuals, low prevalence of familial alcoholism, and a milder course — are to alcohol’s stimulating properties.

Results will be published in the 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Researchand are currently available at Early View.

“Most researchers look at a narrow group of alcoholics, for example, sons and fathers,” explained Anna HV Söderpalm Gordh, assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg and first author of the study. “My study is the first to take a closer look at a larger group — Type I — that has a family member with alcoholism. In my study you can have a multigenerational family history, which makes it more general, particularly in light of the fact that about 40 percent of the Swedish population have a close relative with an alcohol problem.”

“More than 30 years ago, researchers began to classify alcoholics into Type I and Type II, defining Type II alcoholism as the form with a strong genetic risk,” explained Harriet de Wit, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at The University of Chicago. “Since then, few studies have directly addressed the possibility that Type I alcoholics might also carry a genetic risk. This study is unique in that it uses an alcohol challenge procedure among individuals with a family history of Type I alcoholism, but no alcohol problems themselves.”

“The type I alcoholics make up a much more common group than Type II,” added Söderpalm Gordh, “which is very uncommon and rare.”

The researchers gave in a randomized order either the equivalent of three alcoholic drinks (0.6 g/kg in juice) or a placebo (juice alone) to 51 healthy men (n=34) and women (n=17) who were classified as either FHP (n=22) or FHN (n=29) during two laboratory sessions. Participants then self-reported their mood states through questionnaires.

“Participants with a family member with Type I alcoholism reported more stimulant-like effects after the alcohol, compared to the FHN participants,” said de Wit. “This suggests that even children of Type I alcoholics may inherit some characteristic that changes how they feel after alcohol which may, in turn, affect their risk for alcohol abuse. With alcohol and many other drugs, stimulant-like subjective effects are often associated with high risk for abuse.”

“These results tell us that some of us are more sensitive to the rewarding properties of alcohol, which in turn might lead to increased consumption,” said Söderpalm Gordh. “So, be aware of your reaction. If you notice that you might react stronger, happier, or more rewarded than your friends when you drink, try to slow down or not drink more than the rest do. Try to drink the recommended units per week — seven to eight for women, 13 to 14 for men — as any more than that is classified as risky consumption.”

“These findings suggest that even offspring of children with Type I alcoholism, which was previously thought to be less genetically determined, may be at risk,” said de Wit. “These individuals should monitor their alcohol consumption carefully, and consult a professional if their alcohol use begins to interfere with normal daily functions, if they have difficulty stopping, or if they frequently consume more than they intended.”

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