Platelet adenylyl cyclase (AC) activity was measured in 32 alcohol-dependent subjects and 27 control subjects who were categorized as either family history-positive (FHP) or family history-negative (FHN) for alcoholism. The interview and blood sample collections were performed shortly after cessation of heavy drinking in the alcoholic group, and repeat blood samples were obtained at the end of the first and second weeks of monitored abstinence. Control subjects received the same interview and provided blood samples at the time of the interview. When subjects were not segregated for FHP or FHN status, there were no statistically significant differences in basal, cesium fluoride (CsF)-, or forskolin-stimulated mean AC activities between the controls and the alcoholics, at study entry or with 1 or 2 weeks of abstinence. On the other hand, over the 2-week course of sobriety from heavy drinking, the CsF-stimulated AC activity of FHP alcohol-dependent subjects decreased significantly (p = 0.03). FHP alcohol-dependent subjects after 2 weeks of sobriety had significantly lower mean CsF-stimulated AC activity than FHN controls (p = 0.04), whereas the FHN alcoholic subjects' CsF-stimulated AC activity did not differ significantly from FHN controls at this point in time. When all subjects were pooled and then categorized as either FHP or FHN, there was a significant difference in mean CsF-stimulated AC activity (p = 0.02) between the FHP and FHN subject groups. Genetic factors and abstinence appear to have roles in determining low platelet AC activity in alcoholic and nonalcoholic subjects. CsF-stimulated platelet AC activity, in particular, appears to act as a trait marker for a genetic vulnerability to developing alcoholism, but recent heavy drinking in male alcoholics is a factor that can mask differences between FHP and FHN subjects.