Are violent drunks giving the rest of us a bad name? Alcohol consumption and violence

We all know that drinking alcohol changes the way people think and can make them act strangely right? We also know that alcohol is involved in more than 50% of violent crimes and about 75% of partner violence. The question is, why the connection?

A recent paper I published suggests that drugs and alcohol can not themselves be thought to cause violence. Still, the relationship exists, so what gives?

(Before you go any further, if you’re unclear about the difference between causation and association, I suggest you read this article)

Your brain and alcohol abuse

The thought altering effects of consuming alcohol, and most drugs, can be said to affect something called executive functioning (EF). What exactly makes up this type of functioning is a source of some debate, but let’s just say that it refers to attention, strategic planning, reasoning, thought flexibility, and the ability to process information in working memory (an important type of memory used in learning).

You can probably already tell that this type of brain function is extremely important and that different people possess different levels of it. I can also tell you that alcohol consumption has  been shown to reduce overall executive functioning. If you drink alcohol, or have ever seen someone drink, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

The thing is that alcohol consumption messes up everyone’s EF, though obviously, the more you drink, the more affected you become. Still, given the fact that more than 50% of Americans report at least one binge drinking episode a year and less than 7% are involved in violent crime, something else must be at play, right?

Aggressive personality and irritability

As I mentioned earlier, I published a paper showing that aggressive personality, which I measured using 5 different tests, contributes far more to violent behavior than drug use alone. Still, a recent study found that irritability alone could account for some aggressive behavior. Still, the more interesting finding had to do with alcohol-related EF problems and irritability together. The experiment was pretty interesting, so let’s go over it for a bit.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky took more than 300 students and gave them a whole bunch of tests assessing their EF and their overall level of irritability. Afterward, half of the students were given alcohol to drink (about 3-4 drinks per person) and the other half was given a similar number of drinks that contained no alcohol but were sprayed before being handed to smell the same. The students were then asked to play a game that pitted them against another person. The secret was that there was no game and no other person, the winner and loser in each round was pre-determined. Every time the student “won” they got to give the other player a shock, but every time they lost, they themselves got shocked. As the game went on, the shocks the participants got increased in intensity. The researchers wanted to see how the students would react and how large the shocks they would give back would be.

The results showed that the more mistakes people made in their initial EF testing (and therefore the less overall EF capability they showed) the more aggressive they were. This makes sense, as people who are less able to plan, think ahead, and control their behavior would be more likely to engage in things that would hurt them, or misjudge events and think react inappropriately. Irritability was also shown to affect aggression, but this time only for men and intoxicated women.

The effect of alcohol abuse on aggression and violence

When the whole thing was put together the researchers found that for drunk men only, reduced EF and increased irritability worked together to generate even more aggression that was shown for all the other participants. For the simplest example think back to anyone you know who is pretty quick to react anyway and is a little too easily pissed-off. Chances are they become a pretty mean drunk who likes to get in fights.

Obviously this makes sense if you know someone like that, but in terms of helping us make decisions about who should be considered dangerous and who shouldn’t, especially when consuming alcohol, this research helps further explain why we see such a strong connection between alcohol abuse and violence or aggression.

The way I see it there’s a relatively small number of people (mostly men) who is normally pretty aggressive, irritable, and lacking in judgment and self-control, who often get violent when they drink alcohol. For them, many alcohol drinking episodes end badly, and since they’re the most visible of the aggressive drinkers, their behavior produces an association between alcohol consumption per se and violence. For the rest of us, alcohol consumption rarely leads to violence, but violence rarely occurs without drinking alcohol either, so we hardly ever enter the equation at all. That’s why the pattern holds.

Citations:

Godlaski, A. J., Giancola, P. R. (2009). Executive function, Irritability, and Alcohol-Related Aggression. Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 23, 391-404.

Jaffe, A. et al., (2009). Drug Use, Personality and Partner Violence: A Model of Separate, Additive, Contributions in an Active Drug User Sample. The Open Addiction Journal, 2.

College drinking and frats – A match made in alcohol heaven?

contributing author: Gacia Tachejian

animal-houseIf you asked college students in America what goes on at a Fraternity or Sorority party they would tell you that drinking alcohol is a major component. The movie Animal House made heavy college drinking a well known fact decades ago, and research backs it up.

Studies have consistently shown that the highest rates of heavy alcohol use and alcohol disorders occur in the college-age population. But who’s to blame? Although heavy alcohol use has been documented within Greek organizations, the question of whether the Greek environment fosters substance use or whether heavy substance users chose to be in Greek environments has not been researched until now.

In order to find out whether the Frats/Sororities were the main influence for heavy alcohol use or if individuals joining the Greek organizations were simply heavier alcohol abusers researchers recently collected data from 3,720 pre-college students who were then followed for the 4 years of college they enrolled in (talk about a lot of work).

Of the almost 4000 participants there were students who joined the Greek environment and those who didn’t. Also, there were students who were late joiners and students who joined but withdrew before they graduated. After looking at all the different categories, one thing was apparent:

Students, who at any given period were part of a fraternity or a sorority, drank more alcohol and had more negative, alcohol-related consequences while being a member of a Greek organization. Also, once they deactivated, those participants drank less and had less drinking-related consequences.

The real issue as to why this is so important has to do with the consequences of alcohol use. Problems like drinking and driving (and possible DUI arrests), alcohol abuse, alcohol poisoning, and violence are a serious problem among college students. Apparently, Greek Environments make these consequences more likely.

It’s important to note: If the only finding her was that participants in the Greek system drank more alcohol or were more likely to drink alcohol at all that would be one thing (this findings was also true here by the way), but the fact that they were also more likely to have negative consequences associated with their drinking suggests that interventions might be useful within this college-environment.

Something to think about next time you’re bored on a Thursday night…

Citation:

Park, Aesoon, Sher, J., Kenneth, S., & Krull, L., Jennifer (2008) Risky Drinking in College Changes as Fraternity/Sorority Affiliation Changes: A Person – Environment Perspective. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 22, No. 2, 219-229.

The brain-addiction connection: Alcohol use affects almost everything

Alcohol is the most popular psychoactive substance used in the U.S. and the worldWith statistics showing that at least 50% of adults in the US are regular alcohol drinkers (drinkers who have consumed 12 drinks or more in the past year¹), alcohol clearly remains the drug of choice for most Americans. While moderate alcohol use is not deemed dangerous, and is likely even healthy², it is nevertheless still important to know how chemicals we put in our bodies affect us. Many people know and often hear about alcohol abuse and its effects on the liver, the broad effects of alcohol use on other bodily systems, especially the brain, don’t seem to get that much attention. In the tradition of our other brain-addiction articles, we aim to do just that.

Alcohol use and brain depression

In a nutshell, alcohol depresses the central nervous system, causing the uninhibited, relaxed feeling that even the most casual drinker is familiar with. It does so mainly by interrupting brain communication – suppressing the excitatory nerve pathway (by affecting glutamate) and increasing the inhibitory activity (by affecting GABA).

Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain – it’s the one that commonly turns certain brain cells on and increases their firing activity. When alcohol is consumed it inhibits glutamate activity, which diminishes the excitatory effect of glutamate and reduces important relevant functions.

GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – it reduces firing activity and generally turns targets off. When alcohol is consumed it enhances GABA’s inhibition, which is always present throughout the brain to some extent, by directly increasing the activity of many GABA releasing neurons.

In short, alcohol use simultaneously suppresses important new brain activity and inhibits ongoing function at the same time, resulting in an intense depressive effect.

Interference with these two neurotransmitters, some of the most common ones found in the brain, is the reason for alcohol’s wide-ranging effects, particularly on the memory, which depends on the activation, by glutamate, of two receptor types – AMPA and NMDA. Without them, there’s no learning- and no memory (blackout anyone?).

The effects of alcohol use on behavior

By interfering with brain function, alcohol use lowers inhibitions, allowing drinkers to be more outgoing (and willing to do things they most likely otherwise wouldn’t). Information processing is also compromised when drinking, mostly due to alcohol’s effects on the cerebral cortex (and glutamate which is responsible for everything from seeing, to hearing, and more). This is the part of the brain which takes in a person’s senses and thoughts, and helps with voluntary muscle movements. Alcohol use causes impaired thoughts, poor judgment, and a higher threshold for pain. What you’re left with is someone who is slower and less thoughtful, but feels stronger and smarter, all while experiencing less pain. This is, of course, a dangerous combination.

Alcohol use also can influence a person’s cerebellum and limbic system, which control coordination, and emotional regulation, respectively. We’ve all seen those brave-drunks – normally shy individuals who get a little liquid courage in them and are suddenly the life of the party, all while barely being able to put one foot in front of the other. This is a great example of alcohol’s effect on the limbic system as well as the cerebellum. When the limbic system is impaired, individuals often experience memory loss, especially when it comes to emotional states and experiences. Limbic system dysfunction can also lead to individuals experiencing exaggerated feelings (the “I LOVE you, man!” effect). Cerebellum problems lead to a lack of muscle control and fine motor movements – just what you want when you’re trying to steer a car at 65 miles per hour and stay on the road.

The alcohol-sex connection

Due to its effect on the hypothalamus, alcohol use also plays a role in decreasing a person’s sexual desire and performance. The hypothalamus, along with the medulla, plays a role in controlling many regulatory functions of the brain and body. The hypothalamus is the control center for much of the body’s hormone function and governs the autonomic nervous system. The hypothalamus is part of the system than keeps the body in homeostasis, a balanced state that can be considered the “baseline” of system function. In this role, the hypothalamus organizes and controls many complex emotions, feelings and motivational states. The neurons in the hypothalamus produce a number of neurotransmitters which give instructions to different parts of the body.

When this neurotransmitter function get impaired, these systems get depressed, which lowers sexual desire and performance as well as causing individuals to become sleepy- at which point sexual performance doesn’t really matter anymore.

A parting gift – what alcohol abuse may leave users with long-term

As we mentioned above, many people only hear about how alcohol abuse can cause liver damage. But alcohol can do so much more damage than that and since this stuff is commonly used as a solvent (chemistry class anyone?!) that’s not really surprising. There is plenty of emerging research touting the positive effects of moderate alcohol consumption. However, if an individual continuously drinks to excess, there are serious long-term implications for that person’s memory, sex drive, and overall cognitive functions that can, and for more than 27,00 people a year does, end in death. So if alcohol use isn’t a problem for you, enjoy your glass of red wine (or micro-brew), but be aware of the effects; if alcohol abuse is an issue, you might as well keep everything operating as well as possible and stay away altogether.

Citations:

CDC Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2008, table 27.

Charles J. Holahan, Kathleen K. Schutte, Penny L. Brennan, Carole K. Holahan, Bernice S. Moos, Rudolf H. Moos (2010). Late life alcohol consumption and 20-year mortality. Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research.

Alcohol – Blackouts, Brownouts and how they affect your body

Do you remember what you did last night? Have you ever not remembered what you did after drinking? Drinking alcohol affects the brain and can cause lasting damage including, but not limited to, slips in memory. These memory slips can be due to lack of blood flow to brain areas that are important for memory consolidation and are commonly known as blackouts. Contrary to what popular belief, blackouts often occur in social drinkers and don’t seem to be related to age or level of alcohol dependence.

 

Blackouts and the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) rate

Amnesia, or memory dysfunction, can begin to occur even with as few as one or two drinks containing alcohol. However, as the amount of alcohol intake increases so does the probability of memory impairment. Although heavy drinking alone will not always cause blackouts, heavy drinking of alcohol on an empty stomach or “chugging” alcoholic drinks often does cause blackouts.

The estimated BAC (blood alcohol content) range for blackouts begins at levels .14%- .20%. Individuals who reached high BAC levels slowly experienced far less common occurrences of blackouts. Additionally, while blackouts lead to forgetting entire events that happened while intoxicated, some individuals experience an inability to recall only parts of an event or episode (these are often called brownouts).

Blackouts can occur to anyone who drinks too much too fast. In a survey of college students, males and females experienced an equal number of blackouts, although men consumed a significantly more alcohol.

Although brain damage could potentially occur from heavy alcohol consumption, there is no evidence that blackouts are caused by brain damage per se. However, if brain damage is caused from excessive alcohol use, some studies show improvements in brain function with as little as a year of abstinence. Regardless of the possibility of reversing any effects, alcohol use causes damage in different areas of the body (including the liver), and those damages have been shown to occur more quickly among females.

Co-authored by Jamie Felzer

 

Citations:

1. White, Aaron M., Signer, Matthew L., Kraus, Courtney L. and Swartzwelder, H. Scott(2004). Experiential Aspects of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse,30:1,205 — 224

2. Alcohol Alert (2004) . Alcoholic Brain Damage. Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 27.

Is the drinking age getting lower and lower? Teenage alcoholism

How young do kids start drinking?We’ve already mentioned that kids tend to get in quite a bit of trouble during their teen years (see here). Well, adolescence is also a time when the brain is developing and therefore is at a high risk for damage, especially when alcohol abuse enters the picture.

Early use means more alcoholism later

While the risk taking can be playful and harmless, when it involves alcohol and drugs the consequences of use at an early age can be long-lasting. The earlier a person begins drinking the higher the reported rates of alcoholism later in life. During this time, when an adolescent’s brain is changing, they are less likely to be able to inhibit themselves, let alone anticipate the future. Those with hyperactive, disruptive, antisocial personalities are at the greatest risk for alcohol abuse at early ages, putting their already somewhat compromised brains at an even greater risk.

Teens, like adults, report feeling more at ease when under the effects of alcohol, which makes it easy to understand why they would want to continue. Less like (some) adults, teens rarely consider the negative consequences of their actions, a fact that has at least a little to do with their still developing brain structures. But there are consequences to alcohol abuse and they can be dire – over 5000 kids die each year as a result of underage drinking.

Young bodies and early alcohol damage

Before these young adults are truly mature, their intake of alcohol may not be properly resolved by their bodies because their regulatory systems are not fully developed and can be further taxed by the intake of alcohol. Alcohol abuse in a young age can have a lasting effect on brain development resulting in impairments for many years to follow. Reproductive organs and other important maturation factors may also be stunted due to a consumption of alcohol during a vital time (especially when binge drinking). As with most people who drink, regardless of the age, liver enzymes are elevated soon after the heavy drinking begins, meaning the body is less able to ward off other toxins.

Parents and alcoholism

Children of parents who drink more and view drinking with a laid back opinion are more likely to drink more as well. This may not be a problem as long as responsible consumption is discussed, but my guess is that it rarely is. Also, kids who have older friends are more likely to begin drinking at an earlier age. Teens that have become addicted to alcohol need help specifically tailored to their age group that does not remove them from their normal home and school setting. It’s been shown that isolating these kids, or specifically grouping them together, may do more harm than good.

Often, adolescents with alcohol abuse problems are also using other drugs, and they may be suffering from other psychological disorders. All of the issues need to be treated at the same time in order to effectively treat the entire person. No matter what the issue(s), the sooner they are dealt with the more effective the results.

Teenage alcoholism is a problem, and one that we shouldn’t be ignoring.

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

Citations:

“Adolescent Brain Development, Decision making, and Alcohol Abuse and Dependence” NIAAA Research. November 2007.

“Why do Adolescents drink, What are the Risks, and How can Underage Drinking be prevented?” Alcohol Alert. January 2006, 67

The alcoholism gene? That’s quite a long story!

If you were trying to find something to blame alcoholism on, genetics would be a good place to start: As much as 50-60% of the risk of becoming an alcoholic is determined by a person’s genes (1). We’ve discussed the genetics of addiction in general as they relate to other condition like ADHD, depression, and anxiety, but the risk that a person may become an alcoholic also depends on their sensitivity to alcohol’s effects, development of tolerance, susceptibility to withdrawal symptoms and alcohol-related organ damage, among others.

Alcohol related genes and alcoholism

The genetic causes of alcoholism are not always simple and straight-forward, especially because genes interact with one another (and the environment) in ways that can create unexpected results. However, some aspects of the genetics of alcoholism are clear, like the case of the genes that affect the speed with which liver enzymes will break down (metabolize) alcohol and its byproducts. Some people have a gene variation which produces liver enzymes that have trouble breaking down acetaldehyde (ALDH2-2, very common among Asians), a basic breakdown product of alcohol. As the levels of acetaldehyde increase, people experience flushing, nausea and rapid heartbeat which makes them less likely to consume alcohol and therefore less likely to become alcoholics. Not surprisingly, alcoholism rates have been historically low in Asian populations. However, recent increasing trends of alcoholism in Japan show that if you work at it hard enough, even a genetic predisposition that is supposed to protect you from alcoholism is no match for good old social pressures to drink.

Researchers have identified one neuropeptide (called NPY) that is located near known alcohol-related traits and indicates an alcohol preference in rats, consequently increasing response to alcohol (1). The effects of alcohol are increased with certain forms of NPY and  that gene has been linked to addiction-related, and anxiety, behaviors (2). It is also generally accepted that genes that affect the activity of serotonin and GABA (one of alcohol’s main targets in the brain and body) are likely to be involved in alcoholism risk.

It is important for everyone to remember that there is a predisposition to becoming an alcoholic and that alcoholism is a disease, not simply an outcome of poor behavior . There are ways to treat both the physical symptoms and the underlying addiction in alcoholics.

We’ve barely scraped the surface of the numerous influences on alcohol’s effects, and the predisposition to alcoholism, but hopefully this post leaves you with a slightly better appreciation of the complexity of the matter…

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

Citations:

1. Alcohol Alert-National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. No.60. July 2003

2. Anxiety and alcohol abuse disorders: a common role for CREB and its target, the neuropeptide Y gene. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Volume 24, Issue 9, September 2003, Pages 456-460.

About Addiction: Smoking, Alcohol, Painkillers, Prescriptions

This are new, interesting articles about addiction. Check out the links to the articles, and give us your feedback.

Smoking and related issues

Health Day: Smoking increases the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a disease that robs people of their sight.

Reuters: When cigarette smokers quit smoking, chronic stress levels may go down. This should give smokers reassurance that quitting will not deprive them of a valuable stress reliever.

Reuters: A nicotine mouth spray may help prevent cigarette cravings three times faster than nicotine lozenges or chewing gum. This might help smokers who are trying to quit smoking.

Cesar Fax: The percentage of national tobacco retailers selling to minors appears to have leveled off. The average national retailer violation rate decreased from 40.1% to 10.8%, and stabilized at 10.8%.

wcstv: Under a proposed deal reached by Governor David Paterson and Albany legislators, cigarette taxes would increase by $1.60 per pack. In New York City, the price of one pack of cigarettes would cost over $10 in many stores. The hope is that this huge price increase will help smokers quit smoking and reduce overall levels of smoking in New York.

About addiction to alcohol, painkillers, and prescription medication

Hazelden: Abuse of alcohol, painkillers, and prescription medication is rising dramatically among older people. Signs of alcohol abuse and drug addiction are different in older adults than in younger people.

Science Daily: Religiosity can moderate genetic effects on alcohol abuse during adolescence but not during early adulthood. The heritability of an alcohol abuse phenotype depends upon the social environment within which it is measured.

Medical News TODAY: Sleep problems can predict the onset of alcohol abuse in healthy adults and relapse in abstinent alcoholics. Puberty is related to sleep problems and later bedtimes, which are associated with alcohol abuse.

Health Day: Exercise may be an effective treatment option for alcoholism. In addition, alcoholism disrupts normal daily circadian rhythms, which can lead to disrupted sleep patterns.

About addiction and mental illness

KansasCity.com:  To study drug addiction and mental illness researchers, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, have received a $1.8 million federal grant. One of the leading researchers states that conditions such as drug addiction and depression are major problems across the globe.