Childhood Maltreatment Affects the Serotonergic System in Male Alcohol-Dependent Individuals


Reprint requests: Claudia Fahlke, Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 500, SE-405 30 Göteborg, Sweden; Tel.: 46 31 7864289; Fax: 46 31 7864628; E-mail:



Reduced central serotonergic neurotransmission has been demonstrated in individuals with excessive alcohol consumption and/or alcohol dependence. Childhood maltreatment has also been found to have a negative impact on central serotonergic neurotransmission. The aim of this study was to evaluate the impact of childhood maltreatment on central serotonergic dysfunction in alcohol-dependent individuals.


Adult men with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence (n = 18) were recruited from outpatient treatment units for alcoholism. Central serotonergic neurotransmission was assessed by a neuroendocrine method, that is, the prolactin (PRL) response to the selective 5-HT reuptake inhibitor citalopram. Childhood maltreatment was assessed retrospectively by the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire.


Alcohol-dependent individuals with childhood experience of emotional abuse had significantly lower PRL response compared with those without such abuse (3 ± 5 and 64 ± 24 mU/l, respectively; = 6.51, < 0.001). Among those who reported childhood emotional abuse, 4 of 7 individuals had flat PRL responses in comparison with none in those with no report of such abuse (< 0.01).


This is the first study to show that self-reported childhood maltreatment, in particular emotional abuse, in male alcohol-dependent individuals is associated with a quite dramatic (more than 90%) reduction in central serotonergic neurotransmission. It should, however, be noted that the number of individuals is relatively small, and the results should therefore be considered as preliminary.