Research Spotlight: Impulsivity Levels Help Identify At-Risk Offspring of Alcoholics

In short, what is the study about?

Young people with a family history of alcoholism have a greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder; this heightened vulnerability may be due to a lower ability to control impulsive behavior. Here, we particularly examined “waiting” impulsivity – a tendency to respond prematurely when a reward is available; this kind of impulsivity has been previously associated with a predisposition to drinking. We studied young, moderate-to-heavy social drinkers with either a family history-positive (FHP) or -negative (FHN) background after they had consumed either an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink. We also measured additional measures of impulse control, including decision-making on these at-risk offspring of alcoholics.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Young Girl Drinking

Source: Pixabay

Young adults (18-33 years old) with a family history of alcoholism showed a greater waiting impulsivity (they responded too quickly) than those without a family history of alcoholism. In contrast, they were less impulsive in a task that measured how much information they needed before making a risky decision. When they had consumed alcohol (0.8g/kg, an amount equivalent to 5 units; i.e. approximately 2.5 pints of lager or 5 glasses of wine in the UK), they were also less able to stop an already-initiated response. Importantly, individual alcohol drinking history did not contribute to this effect.  Increased waiting impulsivity may thus be useful in assessing premorbid risk for heavy drinking, and one that may be modified by acute alcohol intake.

How are these findings important in practice?

Parental alcoholism significantly increases the risk for offspring alcoholism, an effect thought to be mediated by exaggerated impulsive behavior. Ample evidence has revealed increased impulsivity in adult alcoholics; however, whether these alterations reflect pre-existing traits predisposing to alcohol misuse or are a consequence of alcohol involvement remains controversial.

Our study suggests that assessing exaggerated waiting impulsivity may help identify those children of alcoholics who are themselves at risk of developing alcohol addiction. Our findings also raise the question of whether training such individuals to enhance their impulse control skills may help to alleviate excessive alcohol consumption.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding of the findings?

Impulsivity deficits may result from excessive alcohol drinking, as well as being a pre-existing trait predisposing to high drinking. That the offspring of alcoholics show high-impulsivity may suggest that genetic factors may partially underlie a waiting impulsivity, in keeping with several other studies. However, how a genetic predisposition translates into risky behavior is poorly understood, so that disentangling the biology of high waiting impulsivity should be the focus of future studies. An important aspect of such discoveries would be an increased ability to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the risk for alcoholism.

Link to the primary paper

Sanchez-Roige, S., Stephens, D. N., & Duka, T. (2016). Heightened impulsivity: Associated with family history of alcohol misuse, and a consequence of alcohol intake. Alcoholism: Experimental and Clinical Research, 40(10), 2208-2217. DOI: 10.1111/acer.13184

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Latest update: January 26, 2017
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