Scientific Research Challenges the Notion of Alcohol Tolerance

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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Alcohol Tolerance Impairment Study

A recent scientific investigation has unveiled a surprising revelation, challenging the commonly held belief surrounding the concept of “holding your liquor.” This study indicates that individuals suffering from alcohol use disorder exhibit comparable levels of motor and cognitive impairment to light drinkers when consuming their typical amounts of alcohol.

Individuals with alcohol use disorder, who consume a substantial quantity of alcohol, demonstrate significant impairment as documented in the study.

Fresh research demonstrates that individuals with alcohol use disorder display equivalent levels of fine motor and cognitive impairment as light drinkers when consuming their usual excessive quantities of alcohol.

This study sheds light on the intricacies of the notion of “holding your liquor,” revealing that heavy drinkers may tolerate alcohol better than their lighter-drinking counterparts, but only to a certain extent. When heavy drinkers consumed their typical amounts of alcohol, the study observed significant impairments in both fine motor skills and cognitive abilities, surpassing the impairments experienced by light drinkers at intoxicating doses.

Andrea King, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago and the senior author of the study, explained, “There’s a lot of thinking that when experienced drinkers (those with alcohol use disorder) consume alcohol, they are tolerant to its impairing effects. We supported that notion to some extent, but with significant nuances. When they consumed alcohol in our study at a dose similar to their usual drinking pattern, we observed substantial impairments on both fine motor and cognitive tests, surpassing even the impairments a light drinker experiences at an intoxicating dose.”

This recent paper, published in Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, forms part of the ongoing Chicago Social Drinking Project initiated by Professor King in 2004. This project examines the effects of common substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and antihistamines on mood, performance, and behavior in individuals with varying alcohol consumption patterns.

While many frequent drinkers believe they can “hold their liquor,” this new research from the University of Chicago challenges this assumption. The study worked with three groups of adults in their twenties with different drinking patterns:

  1. Light drinkers who do not engage in binge drinking.
  2. Heavy social drinkers who binge drink several times a month (defined as consuming five or more drinks for men or four or more for women).
  3. Drinkers who meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder and binge-drink on 11 or more days in a typical month.

Each group was administered a specific quantity of alcohol, and their performance on fine motor tasks and cognitive skill tests was evaluated. Surprisingly, when given a standard intoxicating dose (resulting in breathalyzer readings of 0.08%), the light drinkers exhibited greater impairment than the heavy drinkers.

However, when individuals with alcohol use disorder consumed a higher amount of alcohol akin to their typical drinking habits, they displayed significant impairment in the same tasks, more than doubling their impairment at the standard intoxicating dose. It took at least three hours for their performance to return to baseline levels after drinking.

This study suggests that the cumulative physical effects of alcohol become more pronounced as an individual consumes larger quantities of alcohol, regardless of their level of experience with alcohol.

Professor King’s research group has previously shown that heavy social drinkers and those with alcohol use disorder are more sensitive to the pleasurable effects of alcohol, leading them to desire and consume more alcohol than their lighter-drinking counterparts, exacerbating the issue. This creates a precarious situation where individuals experience a strong craving to drink more despite the impairing effects of alcohol, presenting a double-edged sword.

Despite the significant reduction in annual deaths caused by drunk driving following the establishment of the national minimum drinking age at 21 in 1984 and subsequent public awareness campaigns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 140,000 people in the U.S. still succumb to excessive alcohol use annually, with 30% of traffic fatalities involving alcohol intoxication. Professor King underscores the importance of gaining a more nuanced understanding of the effects of alcohol intoxication to mitigate harm.

She stated, “It’s costly to our society for so many reasons, which is why this study is so crucial to enhance our understanding. I hope we can educate experienced high-intensity drinkers who believe they can ‘hold their liquor’ or that they are tolerant and immune to accidents or injuries from drinking. Their tolerance for alcohol only goes so far, and excessive drinkers contribute significantly to the burden of alcohol-related accidents and injuries in society. This is preventable through education and treatment.”

Reference: “Holding your liquor: Comparison of alcohol-induced psychomotor impairment in drinkers with and without alcohol use disorder” by Nathan Didier, Ashley Vena, Abigayle R. Feather, Jon E. Grant and Andrea C. King, 18 June 2023, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. DOI: 10.1111/acer.15080

Additional authors of the study include Nathan Didier, Ashley Vena, Abigayle Feather, and Jon Grant from the University of Chicago.

Funding: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Alcohol Tolerance Impairment Study

What was the main finding of the alcohol tolerance and impairment study?

The main finding of the study was that individuals with alcohol use disorder exhibited significant motor and cognitive impairments when consuming their usual excessive amounts of alcohol. This challenges the commonly held belief that heavy drinkers can “hold their liquor.”

How did the study compare the impairment levels of different groups of drinkers?

The study compared three groups of drinkers: light drinkers who do not binge drink, heavy social drinkers who engage in binge drinking, and individuals with alcohol use disorder who binge-drink frequently. It found that when given a standard intoxicating dose, light drinkers were more impaired than heavy drinkers. However, when those with alcohol use disorder consumed their typical amounts, they showed significant impairment, exceeding that of light drinkers at the standard dose.

What are the implications of these findings for alcohol-related accidents and injuries?

The study highlights the cumulative and impairing effects of alcohol, even for experienced drinkers. It emphasizes that excessive drinkers, despite their belief in alcohol tolerance, contribute significantly to the burden of alcohol-related accidents and injuries in society. The findings underscore the importance of education and treatment to prevent harm associated with excessive drinking.

Why is this study considered important?

This study is considered important because it challenges conventional notions about alcohol tolerance and sheds light on the nuanced effects of alcohol consumption. It also highlights the need for a deeper understanding of alcohol’s impact on different individuals and the potential for education to mitigate the harm caused by excessive drinking.

What is the significance of the Chicago Social Drinking Project?

The Chicago Social Drinking Project, initiated by Professor Andrea King in 2004, is an ongoing research effort that explores the effects of various substances, including alcohol, on mood, performance, and behavior. It aims to provide valuable insights into the behavioral impairments associated with alcohol consumption and contributes to our understanding of alcohol’s effects on different individuals.

How can the findings of this study contribute to public health efforts?

The study’s findings have implications for public health efforts aimed at reducing alcohol-related accidents and injuries. By dispelling the notion of invulnerability among heavy drinkers and emphasizing the need for education and treatment, this research can help raise awareness and potentially prevent harm associated with excessive alcohol use.

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