Etiologic heterogeneity in alcoholism

Sheila B. Gilligan, Theodore Reich, C. Robert Cloninger, Charles F. Sing

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    Etiologic heterogeneity in alcohol abuse was evaluated in 195 extended pedigrees, comprising 288 nuclear families of 140 male and 55 female Caucasian American hospitalized alcoholics. Previous adoption studies in Sweden demonstrated differential heritability of two patterns of alcohol abuse in men: type‐2 alcoholism exhibited early onset of abuse associated with criminal behavior, while type‐1 abuse began at a later age, uncomplicated by antisocial traits. Alcohol abuse in female Swedish adoptees was relatively homogeneous and similar to the lateonset, type‐1 abuse. The notion of etiologic heterogeneity, as suggested by the Stockholm Adoption Studies, was examined in the American pedigrees by contrasting the models of familial transmission of susceptibility to alcoholism obtained via segregation analyses of families of male versus female probands. Families of male probands demonstrated significant familial resemblance, accounted for by a multifactorial‐polygenic background in addition to a major (gene) effect. In contrast, familial resemblance in the pedigrees of female probands was attributed solely to a multifactorial‐polygenic effect. We considered whether some families of male alcoholics were similar to families of female probands, who expressed type‐1 abuse predominantly. Pedigrees of male probands were separated in two groups: (1) “female‐like” families had a better likelihood for the model obtained for families of female probands than the one for families of all male probands, (2) “male‐like” families had a better likelihood for the model of familial transmission describing families of all male probands. A statistically significant difference in the pattern of familial transmission was observed between the “male‐like” and “female‐like” groups. Discriminant function analysis of alcohol‐related symptoms showed that the familial subtypes differed in clinical features as well. Alcohol abuse by male relatives in “male‐like” families was characterized by the early onset of inability to abstain entirely from alcohol or lack of desire to stop drinking; in contrast abuse in “female‐like” families was characterized by late onset of guilt feeling and loss of control over binge drinking.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)395-414
    Number of pages20
    JournalGenetic Epidemiology
    Issue number6
    StatePublished - 1987


    • antisocial behavior
    • discriminant analysis
    • family study
    • segregation analysis
    • sex difference

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    Gilligan, S. B., Reich, T., Cloninger, C. R., & Sing, C. F. (1987). Etiologic heterogeneity in alcoholism. Genetic Epidemiology, 4(6), 395-414.