Clinical relevance of the distinction between alcohol dependence with and without a physiological component

Am J Psychiatry. 1998 Jun;155(6):733-40. doi: 10.1176/ajp.155.6.733.


Objective: DSM-IV indicates that diagnoses of substance dependence should be further characterized with regard to the presence of a physiological component, defined by tolerance or withdrawal. This study evaluated the possible meaning of this distinction in alcohol-dependent men and women.

Method: As part of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism, structured interviews were carried out with 3,395 DSM-III-R-defined alcohol-dependent individuals divided into 2,949 subjects (86.9%) with evidence of tolerance and/or withdrawal (group 1), 51.3% of whom evidenced withdrawal symptoms, and 446 subjects (13.1%) without a physiological component (group 2). Data were evaluated to determine differences between the two groups.

Results: Group 1 reported greater severity of alcohol dependence as demonstrated by a larger maximum number of drinks in 24 hours, more persons reporting binges, more alcohol-related life problems, more relevant DSM-III-R criteria endorsed, more physiological complications, and more alcohol-related emotional/psychiatric symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Each of these severity indicators for problems in group 1 was significant in the presence of the others in a logistic regression, and similar items remained significant when tolerance alone, withdrawal alone, or their combination was used as the criterion for group 1 membership; however, for withdrawal a larger proportion of the variance was explained by the predictor variables. The regression results were independent of gender, proband status, and history of antisocial personality disorder.

Conclusions: The results support the clinical relevance of distinguishing between alcohol-dependent patients with and without a physiological component. The data indicate a potential advantage to limiting that definition to withdrawal only.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / physiopathology
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / epidemiology
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology
  • Comorbidity
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Ethanol / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Terminology as Topic


  • Ethanol