Saturday, May 17, 2008

Take the Alcohol Test

CAGE questionnaire still a useful tool

Despite the time, labor, and expense that have gone into the search for a better way to diagnose alcoholism, researchers have yet to outdo what may be the simplest, most accurate test for alcoholism yet devised. A set of four simple, relatively non-controversial questions, first devised in 1970 by Dr. John A. Ewing, still serve as a useful predictive tool for alcoholism.

Neurobiology has taught us that addictive drugs cause long-lasting neural changes in the brain. The problems start when sustained, heavy drinking forces the brain to accept the altered levels of neurotransmission as the normal state of affairs. As the brain struggles to adapt to the artificial surges, it becomes more sensitized to these substances. It may grow more receptors at one site, less at another. It may cut back on the natural production of these neurotransmitters altogether, in an effort to make the best of an abnormal situation. In effect, the brain is forced to treat alcoholic drinking as normal, because that is what the drinking has become.

The likelihood that many alcoholics and other drug addicts have inherited a defect in the production and distribution of serotonin and other neurotransmitters is a far-reaching finding. While it is difficult to measure neurotransmitter levels directly in brains, there are indirect ways of doing so. One such method is to measure serotonin’s principle metabolic breakdown product, a substance called 5-HIAA, in cerebrospinal fluid. From these measurements, scientists can make extrapolations about serotonin levels in the central nervous system as a whole.

However, testing for serotonin levels is imprecise and impractical in the real world of the doctor's office and the health clinic. Despite all the promising research on neurotransmission, what can physicians and health professionals do today to identify alcoholics and attempt to help them? For starters, physicians could look beyond liver damage to the many observable “tells” that are characteristic patterns of chronic alcoholism—such manifestations as constant abdominal pain, frequent nausea and vomiting, numbness or tingling in the legs, cigarette burns between the index and middle finger, jerky eye movements, and a chronically flushed or puffy face. Such signs of acute alcoholism are not always present, of course. Many practicing alcoholics are successful in their work, physically healthy, don’t smoke, and came from happy homes.

The CAGE test takes less than a minute, requires only paper and pencil, and can be graded by test takers themselves. It goes like this:

1. Have you ever felt the need to (C)ut down on your drinking?

2. Have you ever felt (A)nnoyed by someone criticizing your drinking?

3. Have you ever felt (G)uilty about your drinking?

4. Have you ever felt the need for a drink at the beginning of the day—an “(E)ye opener?

People who answer “yes” to two or more of these questions should seriously consider whether they are drinking in an alcoholic or abusive manner.

--Excerpted from The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction © Dirk Hanson 2008, 2009.

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