Further Reading

What about the latest P3 brain wave and other hypotheses about the inheritance of alcoholism?

I am teaching a class in alcohol and drug treatment, policy, prevention, etc. In a video that I showed to my class, the narrator talked about P3 waves being absent in kids with alcholic dads and that this might be a way to test children and warn them of the danger of later becoming addicted. They had intitally discussed how alcoholics had P3 waves absent vs. the non-alcoholics. My question to any of you out there who can help is: Do you know if identifying lack of P3 waves in the brain is actually a possible way to detect future addiction? I thought that it might be possible to inherit the trait, but not necessarily mean that you were at any greater risk to become addicted. Any explanation or enlightment would be gratefully appreciated. Thank you, Maria


It is remarkable how far theories of the inheritance of alcoholism have fallen. The idea of the inheritance of loss of control went out the window years ago. Heightened susceptibility (or insusceptibility) to the effects of alcohol were the next wave (insusceptibility so that the alcoholic drank more without being aware until becoming dependent). The dopamine gene hypothesis was in for a while — based on the vague idea that alcoholics were a variety of pleasure addict, a destiny people inherited because they were deficient in dopamine, and hence pleasure, production. This sounded much more like "The Pilgrim's Progress" than science. As was to be expected, an article in Nature questioned the entire concept that dopamine led to pleasure in itself, suggesting a number of brain mechanisms were involved. Of course, even if dopamine = pleasure, how this leads to addiction is an incalculable distance. The current most popular genetic hypotheses deal with P3 brain waves and the lack of an inhibitor to alcoholism (identified by a respected NIAAA researcher named David Goldman, who led the assault on the dopamine D2 receptor hypothesis). The concept behind the P3 brain wave is that it shows a heightened amplitude after a strong stimulus, so that those with lower P3 brain waves are less able to distinguish between significant and insignificant stimuli. This has been used as an explanation for schizophrenia, where it has some slight seemingness of plausibility. But the link to alcoholism is again quite a remarkable leap. Now they are searching for genes to account for P3 wave differences, a leap upon that linking this individual wave to the incidence of alcoholism. And contemplate how intricate must be the connection between the absence of an inhibitor to alcoholism and the incidence of alcoholism — as though alcoholism were itself a natural tendency. Just think of the difference between genetic discoveries for things like breast cancer and Huntington's Disease, where a single mechanism is clearly identified with a highly specific malady. Then consider how pale is the entire realm of speculation about genetic inheritance of behavior syndromes, which is why no theory (or discovery) ever rises to the fore, gains general acceptance, and proves to have a powerful impact measurable over varied methods and populations. They'll find a gene for alcoholism (or a contributory genetic mechanism) when they find one for homosexuality — which I will be willing to recognize when they get five straight studies to agree on the same mechanism.

The NIAAA sells its latest brew of genetic alcoholism hypotheses at <http://silk.nih.gov/silk/niaaa1/releases/releases.htm>. But see my section on the genetics of alcoholism, as well as my FAQs on the topic.

Stanton Peele