A biomarker found in the blood of alcohol users is much higher in binge drinkers than in those who drink moderately, according to a new study that measured the effects of alcohol on young adults. The biomarker, known as phosphatidylethanol (PEth), could be used to screen young people at greater risk for harmful drinking behaviors, such as college students.
“Binge drinking is pervasive on college campuses and among young adults,” said Mariann Piano, Ph.D., professor and head of the department of biobehavioral health science in the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Nursing.
“More alarming, though, is the regularity of binge drinking episodes: one in five students report three or more binge drinking episodes in the prior two weeks.”
Having performed extensive research on alcohol and its effects on health, Piano already knew that PEth is a biomarker linked to alcohol consumption, but it had never before been measured in young adults.
Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or above, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In men, this means the consumption of five or more drinks in about two hours, and in women, four or more drinks in the same time period.
For the study, Piano and co-researcher Shane Phillips, Ph.D., associate professor of physical therapy, measured PEth in blood samples from student participants at two large Midwestern universities. Participants (mostly white females) were enrolled in a larger ongoing study on the cardiovascular effects of binge drinking.
After completing a 10-question self-assessment survey to determine their drinking patterns, participants were divided into three groups: abstainers, moderate drinkers, and binge drinkers.
Abstainers were those who did not have more than one drink per month in the past two to three years. Moderate male drinkers were those who consumed three drinks or fewer per sitting one to two times per week in the past five years. For women, the number of drinks was two. Binge drinkers must have had at least two episodes of heavy drinking in one sitting in the last month.
The majority of moderate and binge drinkers were white, while abstainers were predominantly Asian.
Blood was drawn from each participant to measure blood alcohol levels and PEth. Five blood spots were placed on cards to be dried and measured against the whole blood samples in an off-site drug testing laboratory.
“We discovered a significant correlation between PEth levels in both the whole blood and dried blood samples and the number of times subjects consumed four to five drinks in one sitting within the last 30 days,” Piano said.
The PEth levels also positively correlated with the self-assessment survey scores, Piano said.
“Using a biomarker of heavy alcohol consumption such as PEth along with self-reporting could provide an objective measure for use in research, screening and treatment of hazardous alcohol use among young adults,” she said.