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Keywords:

  • Alcohol Abuse;
  • Alcohol Dependence;
  • Twin Studies;
  • Heritability;
  • Symptoms

Background

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are clinically heterogeneous and strongly influenced by familial/genetic factors. Can we identify specific clinical features of AUDs that index familial liability to illness?

Methods

In twins from the Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders meeting DSM-IV criteria for lifetime AUDs, we examined whether clinical features of AUDs, including individual DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence (AD) and alcohol abuse (AA), predicted risk for AUDs in cotwins and/or parents. Analyses of individual criterion were repeated controlling for the total number of endorsed criteria.

Results

Across these analyses, examining narrowly and broadly defined AUDs, risk of AUDs in relatives was more consistently predicted by abuse criteria than by dependence criteria, and by criteria reflecting negative psychosocial consequences rather than pharmacologic/biological criteria. Age at onset (AAO) poorly predicted risk in relatives. AUD associated legal problems, the one criterion slated for removal in DSM-5, was the most consistent single predictor of familial risk. Associations observed between individual criteria and risks of illness in relatives were generally stronger in monozygotic than dizygotic twin pairs, suggesting that these symptoms reflect a genetic risk for AUDs.

Conclusions

Individual DSM-IV criteria for AA and AD differ meaningfully in the degree to which they reflect the familial/genetic liability to AUDs. Contrary to expectation, the familial/genetic risk to AUDs was better reflected by symptoms of abuse and negative psychosocial consequences of AUD than by early AAO, or symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal.