Over 20 million Americans suffer from alcoholism.
Scientists have long wondered whether it would be possible to predict those most at risk, allowing for early intervention strategies.
Researchers at University of Chicago Medicine have just published the results of a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that may offer clues.
In this study, which followed young adult drinkers for a decade, the University of Chicago team found that individuals reporting the highest sensitivity to alcohol's pleasurable and rewarding effects at the start of the study had a much higher likelihood of becoming an alcoholic over the ten years.
What's more, those who became alcoholics saw rising alcohol stimulation levels, liking and wanting during the trial.
According to lead study author Andrea King, Ph.D., these results suggest that individuals who are becoming addicted to alcohol are more likely to be sensitized to the effects of alcohol, experiencing a far stronger positive response than those less susceptible to the problem.
"The thinking that alcoholics do not like the effects of alcohol over time is based on ad-hoc reports of patients entering treatment. Only by testing the same people over a substantial amount of time to see if alcohol responses change over time were we able to observe this elevated response to alcohol compared with placebo, and in participants who did not know the contents of the drinks, so expectancy effects were minimized, King said."
"These pleasurable alcohol effects grow in intensity over time, and do not dissipate, in people progressing in excessive drinking," said King. "This tells us that having a higher sensitivity to the rewarding effects of alcohol in the brain puts such individuals at higher risk for developing an addiction… (These new findings contradict) the crux of the lore of addiction—that addicts don't like the drug (alcohol) but can't stop using it."
Where is all of this research leading?
Dr. King hopes it leads to a form of "personalized medicine" for treating alcoholism, with early intervention strategies intercepting those at most significant risk before lives are damaged.
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