Human and laboratory rodent low response to alcohol: is better consilience possible?

Addict Biol. 2010 Apr;15(2):125-44. doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2009.00191.x.


If people are brought into the laboratory and given alcohol, there are pronounced differences among individuals in many responses to the drug. Some participants in alcohol challenge protocols show a cluster of 'low level of responses to alcohol' determined by observing post-drinking-related changes in subjective, motor and physiological effects at a given dose level. Those individuals characterized as having low level of response (LR) to alcohol have been shown to be at increased risk for a lifetime diagnosis of alcohol dependence (AD), and this relationship between low LR and AD appears to be in part genetic. LR to alcohol is an area where achieving greater consilience between the human and the rodent phenotypes would seem to be highly likely. However, despite extensive data from both human and rodent studies, few attempts have been made to evaluate the human and animal data systematically in order to understand which aspects of LR appear to be most directly comparable across species and thus the most promising for further study. We review four general aspects of LR that could be compared between humans and laboratory animals: (1) behavioral measures of subjective intoxication; (2) body sway; (3) endocrine responses; and (4) stimulant, autonomic and electrophysiological responses. None of these aspects of LR provide completely face-valid direct comparisons across species. Nevertheless, one of the most replicated findings in humans is the low subjective response, but, as it may reflect either aversively valenced and/or positively valenced responses to alcohol as usually assessed, it is unclear which rodent responses are analogous. Stimulated heart rate appears to be consistent in animal and human studies, although at-risk subjects appear to be more rather than less sensitive to alcohol using this measure. The hormone and electrophysiological data offer strong possibilities of understanding the neurobiological mechanisms, but the rodent data in particular are rather sparse and unsystematic. Therefore, we suggest that more effort is still needed to collect data using refined measures designed to be more directly comparable in humans and animals. Additionally, the genetically mediated mechanisms underlying this endophenotype need to be characterized further across species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Alcoholism / genetics*
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Animals
  • Animals, Laboratory*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Rats
  • Species Specificity


  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • ALDH2 protein, human
  • ALDH2 protein, mouse
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Aldh2 protein, rat