Association between problematic alcohol use and reactivity to uncertain threat in two independent samples

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016 Jul 1:164:89-96. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.04.034. Epub 2016 May 2.


Background: Recent laboratory studies have shown that acute alcohol intoxication selectively and effectively dampens aversive responding to uncertain threat. An emerging hypothesis is that individuals who exhibit heightened reactivity to uncertain threat may be especially motivated to use alcohol to dampen their distress, setting the stage for negative reinforcement processes to drive excessive alcohol use. However, no study to date has directly examined whether current problematic drinkers exhibit heightened reactivity to uncertain threat as would be expected.

Methods: The present study was therefore designed to examine the association between current problematic alcohol use and reactivity to uncertain threat during sobriety in two, independent samples. In Study 1 (n=221) and Study 2 (n=74), adult participants completed the same well-validated threat-of-shock task which separately probes responses to temporally predictable and unpredictable threat. Startle potentiation was measured as an index of aversive responding. Problematic alcohol use was defined as number of binge episodes within the past 30days in Study 1 and total scores on a self-report measure of hazardous drinking in Study 2.

Results: As hypothesized, across both studies greater levels of problematic drinking were associated with greater startle potentiation to unpredictable threat. In Study 2, hazardous drinking scores were also positively associated with startle potentiation to predictable threat.

Conclusions: The findings are notably consistent with the notion that heightened reactivity to uncertain threat is an important individual difference factor associated with the onset and/or maintenance of problematic drinking behaviors and may therefore be a novel prevention and intervention target.

Keywords: Alcohol use; Binge drinking; Startle potentiation; Uncertain threat.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / genetics
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / psychology*
  • Alcoholism / genetics
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Binge Drinking / genetics
  • Binge Drinking / psychology
  • Comorbidity
  • Electroshock / adverse effects
  • Electroshock / psychology
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Reflex, Startle* / genetics
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Temperance / psychology
  • Uncertainty
  • Young Adult