Heightened Impulsivity: Associated with Family History of Alcohol Misuse, and a Consequence of Alcohol Intake

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Youths with family history (FH) of alcoholism are at greater risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD); heightened impulsive behavior may underlie such increased vulnerability. Here, we studied waiting impulsivity (previously suggested to predispose to alcohol drinking) in young moderate-to-heavy social drinkers (18 to 33 years old) characterized as family history positive (FHP) and negative (FHN) following an alcoholic or nonalcoholic (placebo) drink.


Two groups of young male and female social drinkers (n = 64) were administered an acute dose of alcohol (0.8 g/kg) or placebo. One group (FHP; n = 24) had first-degree relatives with problems of alcohol misuse; the other group (FHN) did not. Participants completed 4 variants of the Sx-5CSRTT, a task measuring waiting impulsivity. In addition, other types of impulsive behavior were tested (by means of the stop-signal task [SST]; information sampling task [IST]; Delay Discounting Questionnaire; 2-choice impulsivity paradigm; and time estimation task).


Young FHP adults showed more premature responding than FHN when evaluated under increased attentional load (high waiting impulsivity), while, in contrast, they presented a more conservative strategy on the IST (less impulsive behavior), compared to FHN. Acute alcohol impaired inhibitory control on the SST in all participants, and induced a marginal increase of premature responses, but did not affect other measures of impulsivity.


Assessing for exaggerated waiting impulsivity may provide a potential endophenotype associated with risk for the development of alcohol addiction (i.e., offspring of alcoholics).

Young adults (18–33 years old) with a family history of alcoholism exhibited a different pattern of impulsive behaviour from family history negative individuals, showing greater waiting impulsivity, but less impulsivity during decision making. Under alcohol (0.8 g/kg), they were also less able to stop an already-initiated response. Importantly, individual alcohol drinking history did not contribute to this effect. Increased waiting impulsivity may be useful in assessing premorbid risk for heavy drinking and one that may be modified by acute alcohol intake.

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