Explaining Impulsivity and Subjective Response to Alcohol Use: Multiple Methodological Approaches

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Leeman, RF1,2

1 University of Florida, Gainesville, USA 2 Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, USA

Impulsivity is an established risk factor for heavy drinking and alcohol use disorders, but more research is needed to better understand why these relationships exist. It is possible that impulsivity relates to the magnitude and types of effects of alcohol that drinkers experience, which could, in turn, increase the likelihood of problem drinking.

There is theory and evidence linking impulsivity to alcohol expectancies, which are believed to be formed through experience. In contrast, subjective response (i.e., drinkers’ experience of alcohol’s acute effects while drinking) is believed to be genetically mediated to a great extent. While related to expectancies theoretically and empirically, subjective response is a unique construct, thus examining its relationship to impulsivity would expand our understanding of associations between impulsivity and drinkers’ perception of alcohol’s effects.

To that end, we examined self-reported impulsivity and subjective responses to alcohol among social drinkers during IV alcohol administration. We found that more impulsive individuals perceived the high-risk pattern of elevated positive stimulating effects and dampened aversive, sedating effects, particularly at higher alcohol doses.

We then replicated and extended these findings by examining similar relationships using retrospective self-report data. In this subsequent study, self-reported impulsivity again related significantly to dampened sedative response to alcohol. This relationship applied both to social and past-year heavy drinkers. This line of inquiry has recently been extended to include computer-based cognitive task measures of impulsivity and related constructs.

Our findings thus far suggest relationships between impulsivity and high-risk patterns of subjective response to alcohol. These results extend our understanding of associations between impulsivity and the magnitude as well as types of effects drinkers experience from alcohol. Speculatively, these relationships may be broader than once thought given the genetic underpinnings of subjective response and the belief that subjective response predates actual experience with alcohol and alcohol expectancies.