Visual P300s in Long-Term Abstinent Chronic Alcoholics


  • This work was supported by Grants AA11311 (GF) and AA13659 (GF), both from the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

Reprint requests: George Fein, Neurobehavioral Research Inc., 201 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera, CA 94925; Fax: 415-924-2903; E-mail:


Background: Evidence of reduced P3b amplitudes in chronic alcoholics and individuals at risk for developing alcoholism suggest that the P3b may be an endophenotypic marker for alcoholism. If this is the case, then long-term abstinent alcoholics (LTAAs) should exhibit reduced P3b amplitudes. Thus far, P3b studies on chronic alcoholics have focused primarily on samples with relatively short-term abstinence (less than 15 months). This study examines the amplitude and latency of the P3b and P3a event-related brain electrical components in LTAAs compared with normal controls (NCs) and whether these measures are related to alcohol use and other subject variables.

Methods: Electroencephalographs (EEGs) were recorded on 48 LTAAs (mean abstinence=6.7 years) compared with 48 age-matched and gender-matched NCs during a visual P300 experiment consisting of standard, target, and rare nontarget conditions. This paradigm elicited the P3b (target condition) and the P3a (rare nontarget condition) components.

Results: Long-term abstinent alcoholics had reduced P3b amplitudes and increased P3b latencies in comparison with NCs. Long-term abstinent alcoholics also exhibited delayed P3a components, but no P3a amplitude reductions. Alcohol use variables, a family history of alcohol problems, and the duration of alcohol abstinence were not associated with any amplitude or latency variables.

Conclusions: Even after very prolonged abstinence, reduced P3b amplitudes are present in chronic alcoholics and are not associated with any family history or alcohol use variables. These results provide equivocal support for reduced P3b amplitude being an endophenotypic marker for alcoholism, but are also consistent with P3b being affected by a threshold of alcohol abuse, with the effect not resolving over long periods of abstinence.