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Early alcoholism: crime, depression higher.

Early alcoholism: Crime, depression higher

Researchers studying a large sample of male alcoholics say those whose drinking problems emerge before age 20 are much more likely to experience clinical depression, attempt suicide and spend time in jail for crimes involving physical violence. The behavior of this "subgroup" of alcoholics is apparently influenced by disruptions in the availability of serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain involved in mood and aggression, maintain psychiatrist Laure Buydens-Branchey of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in New York City and her colleagues.

The findings, reported in the March ARCHIVES OF GENERAL PSYCHIATRY, support a theory proposed by C. Robert Cloninger of Washington University in St. Louis (SN: 7/30/88, p.74). Based on a study of Swedish adoptees, he suggests two types of predisposition to alcoholism. Type 1, the more common, first appears among people in their late 20s or older and is heavily influenced by environmental factors. Type 2 is less affected by the environment, usually surfaces during adolescence and is accompanied by violent and impulsive behavior.

The New York researchers tested Cloninger's theory in a study of 218 men admitted to an alcoholic rehabilitation clinic. The sample was split according to age: 66 men reported excessive drinking beginning before age 20, while 152 said alcohol abuse began later on.

Patients who started abusing alcohol in their teens were twice as likely to have spent time in jail for violent offenses, three times as likely to have suffered depression and four times as likely to have attempted suicide as patients whose alcoholism began after age 20. Individuals in the younger group also were more likely to have alcoholic fathers.

Patients whose alcoholism began early and who had histories of depression, violent behavior or both also had markedly lower blood levels of tryptophan shortly after withdrawal from alcohol, the researchers note. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in serotonin production.

As others have proposed, these patients may have a preexisting serotonin deficit that worsens with years of excessive drinking, the scientists say. This, in turn, may contribute to recurrent depressions or violent episodes.

The next step, they add, is to test drugs boosting tryptophan or otherwise modifying serotonin in individuals whose alcoholism appeared during adolescence.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 25, 1989
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