Personality and parents' alcoholism interact to influence a person's risk of becoming an alcoholic

Personality and parental alcoholism interact to influence an individual's risk of becoming an alcoholic
  • New findings show that interaction between a personality trait called "novelty seeking" and parental alcoholism can both increase risk of, and protect against, developing individual alcoholism.
  • High novelty seeking is a strong risk factor for alcoholism among children of alcoholics (COAs).
  • Low novelty seeking appears to protect against the risk of developing alcoholism among COAs.

"Disinhibitory personality traits" refer to risk-taking, exploratory, thrill-seeking and sometimes impulsive personality characteristics. Children, especially boys, who exhibit these characteristics have a high likelihood of becoming alcoholics as adults. Recent findings indicate that this risk is further enhanced if these children have an alcoholic parent.

Results are published in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Novelty seeking is not in and of itself a dangerous thing," said Richard A. Grucza, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine. "Lance Armstrong is a good example of somebody with high novelty seeking. He was seriously injured in a bike accident in high school. Somebody more risk averse or less enamored of the thrill of speed probably would have focused on running or swimming after that. But obviously, he is someone who has channeled these tendencies in non-destructive ways." Grucza is the study's corresponding author.

"Although familial alcoholism has long been known to increase the risk of alcoholism in offspring, the risk is not 100 percent," added Kevin Conway, associate director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "This indicates that family history by itself is only one of many variables in the 'equation' predicting alcoholism. Some variables increase the probability of alcoholism in offspring, such as exposure to heavy drinking, or antisocial behavior in parents or offspring, whereas others decrease this risk, such as warm parent-child relationships and certain forms of the alcohol dehydrogenase gene. This study suggests that an individual's personality influences how he or she responds to familial liability to alcoholism."

Researchers analyzed data gathered as part of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism – a multi-site family study – from 1,111 adult siblings of patients seeking treatment for alcoholism. Researchers also established diagnoses of alcohol dependence and personality scores of novelty seeking for the patients' parents.

"Our key finding is the interaction between novelty seeking and parental alcoholism," said Grucza. "Although high novelty seeking is a risk factor by itself, it is a much more important risk factor for individuals with an alcoholic parent. High novelty seeking seems to amplify the risk associated with being from an alcoholic family, and vice versa: having a parent with alcoholism amplifies the risk associated with high novelty seeking."

However, he added, this interaction works both ways. "While high novelty seeking amplifies the risk associated with parental alcoholism, low novelty seeking may diminish it," he said. "People with an alcoholic parent who are low in novelty seeking may be at lower risk than normally expected."

Grucza added that he and his colleagues were surprised by the dual direction of the relationship between novelty seeking and parental alcoholism and the influence this might have on an individual developing alcoholism him or herself.

"Because alcoholism and novelty seeking run in families, and because novelty seeking is a risk factor for alcoholism, it has generally been assumed that novelty seeking is simply a risk factor that runs in families," he said. "What we found was more complicated familial patterns than initially expected."

Conway agrees. "Although the notion of an 'addictive personality' has been largely rejected," he said, "it remains fruitful to identify personality traits that predict addiction to substances, as identification of certain maladaptive personality traits may inform etiology, prevention and intervention."

"Some rethinking of the relation between personality and addiction may be in order," added Grucza. "Rather than thinking about an 'addictive personality,' it is important to think about how personality might influence a person's response to other genetic and environmental risk factors. For example, in a family with parental alcoholism, not all children are at equal levels of risk … kids with high novelty seeking may be at much greater risk, and kids with low novelty seeking may not be at as high of a risk as originally thought."

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Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, "Novelty Seeking as a Moderator of Familial Risk for Alcohol Dependence," were: C. Robert Cloninger of the Departments of Psychiatry and Genetics at Washington University School of Medicine; Kathleen K. Bucholz, John N. Constantino, Danielle M. Dick and Laura J. Bierut of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine; and Marc A. Schuckit of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego and the Alcohol Research Center at the VA San Diego Healthcare System. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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