Aims Major classification systems for alcohol use disorders (DSM-IV and ICD-10) contain elements of the 1976 Edwards and Gross formulation of the Alcohol Dependence Syndrome (ADS). However, issues remain about the criteria that identify Alcohol Dependence (AD) as distinct from Alcohol Abuse (AA) in DSM-IV and Harmful Use in ICD-10. These issues, in part, have their roots in changing historical perceptions of alcohol use and its problems. We discuss current diagnostic criteria for AA and AD, collectively called Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs), in the context of their historical evolution; research progress in understanding alcohol problems, including alcohol dependence; new findings on the severity of AUDs as classified by DSM-IV; and the role of alcohol consumption patterns in future classifications of AUDs.
Methods This paper is based largely on the 2006 H. David Archibald Lecture. Parts of the original lecture have been modified to reflect more recent findings from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Results The original Edwards and Gross ADS construct is supported by advances in biological and behavioral science over the past 30 years. New findings indicate that DSM-IV AA and AD are not diagnostically distinct entities, but represent a continuum of severity of AUDs. The ADS criteria may best represent one quantifiable dimension of alcohol use problems and this scale can be related to that of the frequency of harmful patterns of drinking.
Conclusion The Edwards and Gross ADS criteria can be used as the basis for beginning the development of scalable multi-dimensional criteria for diagnosing AUDs in new initiatives to revise DSM-IV and ICD-10.