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University of North Carolina Medical Center

Sweet Tooth, Personality Traits Diagnose Alcoholism

CHAPEL HILL, NC -- A new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies offers compelling evidence that a strong preference for intense sweet taste combined with a particular personality profile can help diagnose alcoholism with great accuracy.

The findings, published this week in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, also may pave the way for development of an easy-to- administer diagnostic test for determining the risk of developing alcoholism.

"So far, the combination of a 'sweet test' and a written survey called the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire which evaluates the levels of novelty seeking, harm avoidance, and reward dependence, allowed an accurate diagnosis of alcoholism in 85 percent of the subjects studied," says research fellow and study leader Dr. Alexey Kampov-Polevoy. "Actually, the word alcohol is never mentioned throughout this testing routine, which takes about 15 to 20 minutes. No other diagnostic test for alcoholism shows such results."

The study extends previous UNC-CH work in animals and humans. Originally, in a study in rats, Kampov-Polevoy and his colleagues showed that the intake of sweet saccharin solutions could predict alcohol intake with extreme accuracy. Unlike rats that do not drink alcohol, rats with a genetic predisposition to high alcohol intake consume large amounts of sweet solutions (three times their normal fluid intake). Moreover, the alcohol-drinking rats preferred more concentrated sweet solutions than alcohol-avoiding rats. The latter finding was then replicated last year in humans. In a simple taste test, 65 percent of alcoholics said they preferred the most concentrated of five sugar solutions offered, which was three times sweeter than regular cola. Only 16 percent of the nonalcoholics showed a similar preference for the strongest solution while the others preferred much weaker sweet solutions.

Kampov-Polevoy says a strong liking for sweets alone is not enough to accurately indicate the presence of alcoholism. Only those sweet-liking individuals who have a certain personality profile are vulnerable to the development of alcoholism. In the new study, 52 men who had never been diagnosed with alcoholism and 26 recovering alcoholics took the sweet preference test and completed the TPQ. Sweet-liking alcoholics scored high on harm-avoidance and novelty-seeking, while sweet-liking nonalcoholics tended to score low on these traits. Neither group could be differentiated by their scores on reward dependence.

Says Kampov-Polevoy: "You may say that the sweet-liking alcoholic is a person who might love to sky dive but is afraid to go to the airplane." He explains that a major component of novelty seeking is "impulsivity," while depressive features and anxiety underlie harm avoidance. "It seems that the combination of a preference for the strong pleasurable stimuli [sweets] with impaired control of impulses puts that person in trouble," he says. "On the other hand, sweet-liking without high novelty-seeking may be a characteristic of the normal behavior. Probably this is why sweet-liking individuals from the control group scored on the novelty-seeking scale even below the average level."

Kampov-Polevoy says studies now under way provide some evidence that the "sweet test" may be used to determine a genetic risk of alcoholism. The researcher says these findings may lead to the development of an easy-to-administer diagnostic test for alcoholism risk. Such a test would provide the opportunity for early preventive intervention through education and behavior change. "Believe me, it is much easier to prevent alcoholism that to treat it," says Kampov-Polevoy."

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