A recent NIAAA study has shown that people who drink socially and have certain risk factors for alcohol use disorder (AUD) self-administer more alcohol and at a faster rate during a single session of alcohol consumption in a laboratory setting than people at low risk for developing AUD. Participants with all three risk factors evaluated in the study—being male, having a family history of AUD, and having higher impulsivity behaviors—had the highest rates of binge drinking. These findings suggest that people at risk for AUD have different drinking patterns than those at low risk.

NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours. A wide-range of risk factors for AUD are known, but many people with risk factors for AUD do not develop the disease. Binge drinking may be an early indicator for risk of developing AUD. Examining drinking behavior during individual drinking sessions may provide more clues for identifying individuals at risk for AUD.

To determine whether the three AUD risk factors examined in the study could predict the rate of binge drinking, 159 social drinkers between the ages of 21 and 45 completed assessments about family history of problem drinking, behavioral impulsivity, and level of response to alcohol. They then participated in a laboratory session in which they self-administered alcohol intravenously to mimic a typical drinking session with friends. The participants’ BAC was continuously estimated by computer and confirmed by breathalyzer every 15 minutes.

Participants who were identified as being at a higher risk for AUD administered alcohol faster, reaching a binge-like BAC more quickly than those at a lower risk for developing AUD. Having a family history of AUD was most strongly associated with a faster rate of binge drinking. Participants with all three risk factors had the fastest rates of intravenous alcohol administration—5 times faster—during a session compared to the lowest risk group. Although more research is needed, the results suggest that assessing binge drinking during individual drinking sessions as part of a clinical exam may help identify individuals in need of early intervention.

Gowin, JL, Sloan ME, Stangl BL, Vatsalya V, Ramchandani VA. Vulnerability for Alcohol Use Disorder and Rate of Alcohol Consumption. Am J Psychiatry. 2017 Nov 1;174(11):1094-1101. PMID:28774194