New Clues on Alcoholism in Families

Personality Traits, Family History May Matter, Study Shows

Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD, PhD on April 24, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

April 24, 2006 -- Researchers have identified several traits that may increase the risk of alcoholismfor people who have a family history of alcoholism.

The finding comes from a study of 175 young adults without alcoholism. Half of the participants had a family history of alcoholism.

Participants took memory, personality, and gambling tests. Among the findings:

  • Memory scores were lower in less-inhibited people with a family history of alcoholism.
  • Risky behavior on the gambling test was more common among men with a family history of alcoholism, compared with those not from alcoholic families.

If confirmed, those patterns may help predict and treat at-risk people, note William Lovallo, PhD, and colleagues in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Lovallo directs the Behavioral Sciences Laboratory at Oklahoma City's Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Higher Risk

The study doesn't paint a picture of all people with a family history of alcoholism.

Past studies have shown that people with a family history of alcoholism, especially men, are more likely to develop alcoholism than the general public, note Lovallo and colleagues. But not everyone with alcoholic relatives develops alcoholism.


Lovallo's team searched for traits that might make a difference in alcoholism risk.

"Having the ability to decipher the brain characteristics of people who we think are at risk for alcoholism allows us to begin to talk about the process, about brain mechanisms, and how an inherited risk may be expressed through a person's behavior," Lovallo says in a news release.

"If you come from a family with alcoholism, and you also tend to like to take risks, break rules, etc., which are all part of behavioral disinhibition, you should be aware that you're manifesting some high-risk characteristics," he continues, adding that "parents and teachers may also want to be aware of these characteristics."

Alcoholism in the Family

Participants were about 23 years old, on average. They answered questions about their parents' and grandparents' drinking habits.

The researchers checked those reports with most of the participants' parents. A total of 87 participants had a family history of alcoholism in which either or both parents had alcohol problems.


Participants took personality tests measuring behavioral control and antisocial behavior. They tested their working memory by reading aloud color words printed in mismatched ink. For example, the word "blue" might have been written in green ink. The participants first read aloud the printed color word and then went through the same list, but this time had to identify the color.

To gauge risk-taking and decision-making traits, the researchers gave participants a gambling test using four decks of cards with financial risks and rewards.

Results Varied

The findings weren't identical for all participants with family histories of alcoholism.

For instance, poorer memory scores were only seen when family history of alcoholism was combined with lower behavioral control as measured by personality tests. Also, the tendency toward risky plays in the gambling test was only seen in men, not women, with a family history of alcoholism.

The study doesn't show which participants (if any) later developed alcoholism. "These findings are not secondary or consequential to a history of drinking but reflect the familial and personal characteristics of those subjects at high risk for developing alcoholism," Lovallo says in the news release.

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SOURCES: Lovallo, W. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, May 2006. News release, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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