Individuals who drink heavily are at an increased risk for adverse consequences of drinking and progression of their drinking habits to abuse or dependence. Therefore, it is important to delineate factors associated with their heavy drinking.
We examined individual differences in subjective and objective responses to ethanol associated with level of consumption by reanalyzing data from the nine heaviest and nine lightest social drinkers from each of two independently collected subject samples: Holdstock and de Wit (1998) and King et al. (1997). The light drinkers in both samples consumed five or less alcoholic drinks per week, whereas the moderate/heavy drinkers consumed eight or more drinks per week with frequent binge episodes. Acute subjective and objective responses to ethanol (0.6 or 0.8 g/kg) or placebo were compared in the two groups at baseline and during rising and falling blood alcohol concentrations.
Moderate/heavy drinkers reported greater stimulant-like and fewer sedative-like and aversive subjective effects after ethanol than did lighter drinkers. These differences occurred in the absence of any group differences in breath alcohol levels, performance effects, or neuroendocrine changes or in overall reports of feeling any drug effects.
These data indicate that habitual moderate/heavy ethanol use was associated with greater stimulant-like effects after an acute dose of alcohol. This finding is consistent with the idea (Newlin and Thomson, 1990, 1999) that individuals who experience greater stimulant-like effects during the ascending limb and lesser sedative-like effects on the descending limb of the blood alcohol concentration curve may be at greater risk for developing ethanol use disorders. Although we cannot determine the causality of this association, sensitivity to the stimulant effects of ethanol may play an important role in the continuation of heavy ethanol use and the increased risk of negative consequences from this use.