Biological markers in alcoholism

  • A. Helander
Conference paper


Alcohol biomarkers include tests indicative of acute or chronic alcohol consumption (state markers), and markers of a genetic predisposition to develop alcohol dependence after chronic exposure (trait markers). While a comprehensive trait marker for alcohol dependence has not been identified, a number of successful state markers for monitoring drinking status are used clinically. These tests provide direct or indirect ways to estimate the amounts of alcohol consumed and the duration of ingestion, and to detect any harmful effects on body functions resulting from long-term misuse. The most obvious method to prove recent drinking is by demonstrating the presence of ethanol in body fluids or breath, but, because ethanol is cleared fairly rapidly from the body, this method is limited to detect only very recent drinking. Measurement of urinary 5-hydroxytryptophol or ethyl glucuronide provide more sensitive methods to disclose recent drinking, because their washout constants are much longer than for ethanol. The liver functions test (GGT, AST and ALT in serum) and the mean corpuscular volume of erythrocytes (MCV) are among the standard diagnostic tools used to identify chronic alcohol exposure. The main disadvantage with these measures is that they have low sensitivity for recent excessive intake, and that raised levels may result from several causes besides heavy drinking, implying a low specificity for alcohol. Carbohydrate-deficient transferrin (CDT), which refers to changes in the carbohydrate composition of serum transferrin, is a more specific marker for identifying excessive alcohol consumption and monitoring abstinence during outpatient treatment. The alcohol biomarkers improves knowledge of drinking patterns in both individuals and populations, and they are also valuable tools for the objective evaluation of treatment efforts. Alcohol markers have, for example, found uses in early identification of at-risk and harmful drinking, and they help to monitor abstinence and relapse in response to outpatient treatment.


Mean Corpuscular Volume State Marker Trait Marker Harmful Drinking Alcohol Alcohol 
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© Springer-Verlag Wien 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Helander
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Clinical NeuroscienceKarolinska Institutet & HospitalStockholmSweden
  2. 2.Alcohol LaboratoryKarolinska HospitalStockholmSweden

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