Study Doubts Risks for Children of Alcoholics

Disputes notion that psychological tests are a harbinger

K.L. Capozza

K.L. Capozza

Updated on October 15, 2008

TUESDAY, May 20, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study disputes conventional wisdom that children of alcoholics have certain risk factors that predispose them to follow in the footsteps of their addicted parents.

The study, which tries to zero on those factors, suggests that performance on psychological tests in early adulthood does not predict alcoholism later in life. The finding debunks a prevailing theory that neuropsychological performance can foretell the future alcoholic tendencies of children.

University of Kansas researchers used data collected in a large retrospective Danish study during the 1960s to examine potential markers for future alcoholics. The Danish study identified 223 high-risk sons of alcoholic fathers and 107 low-risk sons of nonalcoholic fathers.

At age 19, before the boys had started drinking alcohol, they were evaluated using a series of cognitive and behavioral tests. Those who scored poorly were considered high risk, while those who scored well were labeled low risk.

"When these subjects were tested at 18 and 19 [years old] we found shocking differences between them. We thought that these differences would predict them becoming alcoholics," says Elizabeth Penick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Back then, "it was considered a powerful research paradigm to find early markers of alcoholism," Penick says. "People even talked about making a vaccine."

To determine if the children who were considered high risk actually became alcoholics, Penick's team tracked down the subjects 10 years later and determined how many of them had developed a drinking problem.

The researchers were surprised to find that performance on the neuropsychological tests at age 19 did not predict later alcohol dependence.

"We found that intellectual and cognitive risk factors are not good predictors of later disease," Penick says.

However, the researchers were able to isolate four factors that appear to predict future alcoholism: childhood unhappiness, life stress, low birth weight and antisocial behavior.

"There are things which predict alcoholism, but these [tests] are not one of them," Penick says.

The results, while interesting, are not particularly surprising, says Dr. Kirk Wilhelmsen, a behavioral geneticist at University of California at San Francisco.

"If you think about it, there's lots of people who are smart who are alcoholics and lots of people who aren't particularly smart who aren't," he says. "What this study suggests is that a lot of the observational data that indicates that cognitive function plays a role in alcoholism has to be viewed skeptically."

Robert Zucker, director of the University of Michigan's Addiction Research Center, says the study design may have biased the results.

"What has been established is that the particular battery of neuropsychological tests this team used was not able to differentiate those who became alcohol dependent versus those who did not. This may or may not be an indictment of the high-risk paradigm," he says.

The findings were presented May 19 at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco.

More information

Learn about families and alcohol problems from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism or Adult Children of Alcoholics.

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