Early Response to Alcohol May Predict Later Drinking Behavior

Heavy use more likely if the brain responds to the substance as a stimulant, study suggests

THURSDAY, April 7 (HealthDay News) -- A young adult's early response to alcohol may predict future drinking problems, researchers say.

The University of Chicago study included 200 volunteers, aged 21 to 35, who were classified as either light or heavy drinkers during an initial laboratory test. Heavy drinkers experienced greater sensitivity to the rewarding and stimulating effects of alcohol, while light drinkers reported stronger alcohol-related sluggishness and sedation, the study found.

"They both had very similar blood alcohol concentration curves, but the effects of alcohol were markedly different," study author Andrea King, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, said in a University of Chicago Medical Center news release.

The findings show that "you can take a 150-pound male light drinker and a 150-pound male heavy drinker and give them each the exact same dose of alcohol, but their brains respond very differently to this substance, hence the divergent experiences and mood reports after consumption. It's really fascinating," King said.

Over two years of follow-up, the heavy drinkers fell into different groups, including those who cut back on binge drinking ("gradual maturing"), those who kept up a moderate or high frequency of binge drinking, and those who bumped up their binge drinking ("exacerbating").

People in the "exacerbating" group drank more alcohol, drank more often, suffered more alcohol-related problems, and were more likely to meet the criteria for diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence, the study authors noted.

Because the study participants who exacerbated their binge drinking habits during the follow-up period were more likely to have experienced positive and stimulating effects of alcohol in the initial laboratory test, the researchers suggested that it may be possible to predict a person's future drinking behavior.

"If we know more about who's going to become a problem drinker, we may be able to prevent future escalations and intervene earlier, before development of severe alcoholism," King said. "The stimulant-type responder could learn that while such a response pattern may not be their fault, it could put them at risk for longer-term problems and consequences."

The study was published in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about alcohol consumption.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: University of Chicago Medical Center, news release, April 4, 2011

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