Can Levels of Impulsivity Indicate Risk of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol Addiction

It’s already known that youth who have an alcoholic relative are at higher risk of developing alcohol addiction or misuse themselves. A group of three researchers wondered if higher levels of impulsivity among these youth might play in to the risk factors, so they did a small study to see if they were right. Allegedly, they found that “waiting impulsivity,” a type of premature response behavior, could help identify the children of alcoholics who were at risk for developing their own addictions. The word “allegedly” is used because the study is too weak to be meaningful and, even if taken at face value, the results do not support the conclusion given.

The Study

The researchers put together two groups of men and women who identified as social drinkers. One group of 24 had a first-degree relative with a history of alcohol misuse (FHP, for “family history positive”). The other group, of 40, did not (FHN, or “family history negative”). All participants were given an acute dose of alcohol—calculated by body weight—and made to complete a series of tests that are used to assess impulsive behavior.

The FHP group showed higher waiting impulsivity levels on one test meant to look at attention span, but lower impulsive behaviors on an information sampling test. Both the FHP and FHN drinkers demonstrated reduced inhibition control during a separate test as well. The comparative results of the other three tests (there were six types total) were not mentioned. Based on these findings, it was concluded that looking for exaggerated waiting impulsivity could be a way of identifying the offspring of alcoholics who are most at risk for developing addiction themselves.

Study Fails to Draw Real Conclusion

The extremely small sample size and lopsided group arrangement (FHN is almost twice as big as FHP) is a common hazard in minor studies, but the real fatal flaw here is that there doesn’t appear to be anything in the study that actually justifies the conclusion being drawn. Finding that the offspring of alcoholics may have more waiting impulsivity does not suggest a risk factor for later developing alcohol addiction. All it suggests is a way to identify those who are more likely to be the children of alcoholics, which any family history could do. In order to investigate whether or not levels of waiting impulsivity can suggest who is at risk of alcohol addiction, you need to see which participants actually end up abusing alcohol. Without this key point, the researchers have no way of supporting their own conclusion and their findings are left as a useless jumble of data points.

Sanchez-Roige, S., et al., “Heightened Impulsivity: Associated with Family History of Alcohol Misuse, and a Consequence of Alcohol Intake,” Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research, 2016; 1111/acer.13184.