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OHSU research with primates offers valuable clues to human alcohol consumption

COURTESY: OHSU - A troop of adolescent and young adult male Rhesus monkeys in a shelter housing unit with indoor and outdoor access at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.Some can, some can’t. When it comes to consuming alcohol, some can enjoy a drink or two a day, others tumble down a path that can lead to heavy drinking or alcoholism.

Dr. Kathy Grant is chief and senior scientist in the division of neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, a part of Oregon Health & Science University. Grant looks no further than a monkey population in trying to unravel the mystery of why some humans are at greater risk of heavy drinking.

As part of her research, Grant said, “Monkeys are all given the opportunity to drink the same amounts of alcohol (for three months). It’s an amount that will get them to a blood alcohol concentration that’s seen as intoxication.”

After the monkeys experience the effects of intoxication, they are given a choice of drinking alcohol or water. “Some of them choose not to drink heavily at all,” she said. “Others choose to drink very heavily. Now I have individuals (monkeys) that seem to be at very low risk for heavy drinking, and others that look to be a very high risk for heavy drinking.”

COURTESY: OHSU - Dr. Kathy Grant is chief and senior scientist in the division of neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, a part of Oregon Health & Science University. It’s this data that can help give clues as to why some humans are at a higher risk of developing a drinking problem.

You may wonder why your next door neighbor can drink normally, but your neighbor across the street has a drinking problem. Grant notes that monkeys and humans are similar when it comes to risk factors, but a notable exception in humans is a family history of alcoholism.

“A family history entails both your inherited genes as well as your early environment,” Grant said. “If one of your primary relatives (mother, father, brother, sister) is an alcoholic, and you’re living with them (especially if you’re very young), you will learn things about alcohol. So it’s difficult to disentangle the inherited genes from the early childhood environment.”

Another risk factor in humans is the age one starts consuming alcohol.

“If you start drinking alcohol (to intoxication) when you’re 13 to 15 years of age — your lifetime chances of being diagnosed with alcohol dependence is four times higher than people who do not start drinking to intoxication until they’re 21,” Grant said. “That’s a very striking risk.” Interestingly, this same age risk factor is seen in the monkeys that Grant studies.

She said the age of onset of drinking trumps family history. “So if you come from a family of alcoholism, but don’t start drinking until you’re 21, you have lowered your risk,” Grant said. “That’s telling.”

Men, according to Grant, seem to be more likely to become problem drinkers. “The gap seems to be closing between men and women (in the United States), but, by and large, it does seem like men are at greater risk than women,” she said.

Stress also plays a factor in heavy drinking. “In fact, that’s another aspect of my studies,” Grant said. “Really, heavy drinking is a big stressor on your physiology, and yet people often will say that they start drinking because they got stressed.”

She added that “monkeys that react stressfully to a novel stimulus could be entered into a study to see if they would eventually drink more than animals that don’t react to the novel stimulus.”

Depression in humans can also be associated with heavy drinking. Does depression come before heavy drinking or is it the other way around? There is no clear answer, Grant said, noting the subject has to be studied more.

One encouraging note is that, according to Grant, most people, even if they drink heavily in their young adult years, will age out of it.

“It’s just that 8 percent to 10 percent that don’t,” she said. “Somehow alcohol has captured their behavior.”

Grant’s message to people new to the world of alcohol: “Our advice is to avoid a regular drinking pattern in which you’re becoming intoxicated.”


To assess whether you or loved one may have an AUD, here are some questions to ask.

In the past year, have you:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?
  • If you have any of these symptoms, your drinking may already be a cause for concern. The more symptoms you have, the more urgent the need for change. A health professional can conduct a formal assessment of your symptoms to see if an alcohol use disorder is present.

    - National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (

    Scott Keith is a freelance writer for the Portland Tribune and the Pamplin Media Group. If you have a health tip, or a story idea, contact Scott at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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