• Adolescents;
  • Adults;
  • DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorders;
  • Item Response Theory;
  • Symptom Patterns

Background:  There is limited information on the validity of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) alcohol use disorders (AUD) symptom criteria among adolescents in the general population. The purpose of this study is to assess the DSM-IV AUD symptom criteria as reported by adolescent and adult drinkers in a single representative sample of the U.S. population aged 12 years and older. This design avoids potential confounding due to differences in survey methodology when comparing adolescents and adults from different surveys.

Methods:  A total of 133,231 current drinkers (had at least 1 drink in the past year) aged 12 years and older were drawn from respondents to the 2002 to 2005 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health. DSM-IV AUD criteria were assessed by questions related to specific symptoms occurring during the past 12 months. Factor analytic and item response theory models were applied to the 11 AUD symptom criteria to assess the probabilities of symptom item endorsements across different values of the underlying trait.

Results:  A 1-factor model provided an adequate and parsimonious interpretation for the 11 AUD criteria for the total sample and for each of the gender–age groups. The MIMIC model exhibited significant indication for item bias among some criteria by gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Symptom criteria for “tolerance,”“time spent,” and “hazardous use” had lower item thresholds (i.e., lower severity) and low item discrimination, and they were well separated from the other symptoms, especially in the 2 younger age groups (12 to 17 and 18 to 25). “Larger amounts,”“cut down,”“withdrawal,” and “legal problems” had higher item thresholds but generally lower item discrimination, and they tend to exhibit greater dispersion at higher AUD severity, particularly in the youngest age group (12 to 17).

Conclusions:  Findings from the present study do not provide support for the 2 separate DSM-IV diagnoses of alcohol abuse and dependence among either adolescents or adults. Variations in criteria severity for both abuse and dependence offer support for a dimensional approach to diagnosis which should be considered in the ongoing development of DSM-V.