Alcohol: The Aggression Elixir?
Peter Giancola
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky
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Theorists have argued that serotonin is involved, in part, in the inhibition of behavior. As such, it may be that alcohol affects the serotonin system in such a manner as to impair its ability to properly inhibit behavior, including aggression. Pertinently, there is some evidence to show that low serotonin may affect aggression by interfering with ECF. Acute alcohol consumption leads to an initial increase, and then decrease, of serotonin, which may promote aggression. Others have argued that the serotonin-depleting effect of alcohol may be more profound in some people. However, these explanations are highly speculative because laboratory studies show that alcohol's aggression-inducing effects occur quite quickly, that is, when serotonin levels are supposedly still rising. In fact, a recent study indicated that a given blood alcohol level is more likely to cause aggression when the blood alcohol concentration is rising (shortly after consuming a few drinks) as opposed to when it is falling (during the detoxification process). Based on this, it is clear that a great deal of research is still needed to elucidate the complex interactions of alcohol and serotonin in the expression of aggressive behavior. In addition, it has been suggested that alcohol may also facilitate aggression through its effects on brain receptors for another neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It is believed that alcohol acts at the same receptor complex as sedative drugs, such as the benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Xanax). Laboratory studies and clinical reports indicate that these "sedatives" actually tend to facilitate aggressive reactions by reducing anxiety, including fear of punishment. GABA functions, in part, to suppress fearful responses to punishment and fear-related cues. Alcohol increases chloride transmission at the GABA receptor complex, which augments GABA neurotransmission and thus may facilitate aggression by reducing fear.

Alcohol, the Person, and the Situation | I have neglected to discuss social and contextual factors, although they are clearly important determinants of whether alcohol will, or will not, facilitate aggression. Even a high-risk profile for alcohol-induced aggression will generate aggression only in certain contexts. However, because more research has been conducted on social and situational influences than on person or trait variables, I have stressed the development of risk profiles for alcohol-related aggression that focus on the person. To summarize, people with low ECF, strong beliefs that alcohol increases aggression, high dispositional aggressivity, a heavy (or possibly light) drinking history, high testosterone, or low serotonin levels, or any combination of these traits, will be more likely to exhibit aggression under the influence of alcohol than those without these vulnerabilities.

It should be made clear that the risk factors described here do not comprise an exhaustive list. Other traits that are potentially important include age, perspective-taking, self-awareness, negative affect, temperament, emotionality, sensation seeking, anxiety, irritability, hostility, frustration tolerance, impulsivity, psychopathology, early physical abuse, perceived self-esteem, tolerance and sensitivity to alcohol, and physiological reactivity to stress. There is no single risk profile for intoxicated aggression. Identifying key vulnerabilities is important because it will provide researchers with a better understanding of the causal structure of the alcohol-aggression relation. With such an understanding, scientists will be in a better position to develop effective prevention and treatment interventions.


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