WHAT’S HAPPENING IN

MEDICINE

Here’s what computers are discovering about the causes of alcoholism

SIDNEY KATZ February 1 1969
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN

MEDICINE

Here’s what computers are discovering about the causes of alcoholism

SIDNEY KATZ February 1 1969

MEDICINE

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN

BY SIDNEY KATZ

Here’s what computers are discovering about the causes of alcoholism

EVERY TWO WEEKS, 32 alcoholics are admitted to a three-story, red-brick building on the banks of the muddy Don River in Toronto’s east end. It’s known, officially, as the Medical Unit of the Alcoholism and Drug Research Foundation.

In the following two weeks, the patients will answer thousands of questions about their childhood, marriage, religious attitudes, eating habits and social life. And the most sophisticated medical gadgetry and laboratory tests will scrutinize every inch of their bodies, externally and internally.

The unit is trying to answer an old question: “What makes a man become an alcoholic?” But the way it’s going about it is new. It’s known as the epidemiological approach.

The idea is to compare groups of people with a known condition — in this case alcoholism — with the general population and find out how they differ. Hopefully, if you feed enough data into a computer, out will come significant relationships that provide clues to the causes of compulsive drinking.

Since the unit was established 18 months ago, Dr. J. S. Olin and his staff have “processed” some 500 alcoholic men and women. The staff includes dentists and clergymen, radiologists and internists. Ultimately, they hope to examine several thousand alcoholics.

A number of “interesting” relationships have been spotted:

□ The mouth of the alcoholic is different than that of the average person. Dentist Murray Cornish found a particular type of protuberance in the alcoholic’s jaw twice as often as it’s observed in nonalcoholics. Alcoholics have fewer cavities, but more of them — 80 percent — have some obvious mouth habit, such as teeth-grinding, nail-biting or teeth-clenching.

□ The alcoholic never has a migraine; rarely suffers with a tension headache. He is three times more 'likely to have diabetes than the average person, but is far less likely to be overweight. He is more prone to epilepsy, cancer of the larynx, accidents, liver cirrhosis. He dies 10 years sooner than the average person.

□ Alcoholism appears to be passed on from parent to child, in some degree. One in five of the patients had either a father or mother who died of alcoholism.

One researcher observes, “The son of an alcoholic tends to become an alcoholic; the daughter tends to marry one.”

□ Poor nutrition or food allergy may be a causal factor in alcoholism. The Medical Unit has yet to tabulate its information relating to diet, but Dr. U. D. Register, a California biochemist, has demonstrated that rats fed on a skimpy diet drink twice as much alcohol as those that are well fed. If spices and coffee (caffeine) are added to the substandard fare, the animals will drink four times as much as a properly fed group. At the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois, Dr. Herbert Karolus has tested 422 alcoholics, measuring their reactions to such foods as grapes, apples, barley, corn, hops, rye and juniper berries. “Our experiments,” he says, “have led us to support the belief that there is a demonstrable relationship between alcoholism and food allergies.” Karolus feels that the compulsive drinking of alcohol after the first drink is comparable to the sneezing of hay-fever victims after contact with pollen.

□ A significant proportion of alcoholics seem to be potential suicides. One in 10 patients at the Medical Unit have spoken of doing away with themselves. John McGonegal, Anglican clergyman attached to the staff, says, “Many seem to have a death wish. Telling them that they’re going to ruin their health and die if they keep drinking is no threat. Patients with other forms of illness seem to be more interested in living.” This death-wish theory finds support from Dr. M. M. Glatt, a British authority on alcoholism. Reporting on his study of 75 alcoholics, he says that most of them, at one time, were convinced that they would be better off dead. A third of them had definite thoughts of suicide; a quarter of them had actually attempted it.

□ It’s expected that the Medical Unit’s computer will shed some light on the recent observation that there is a close link between alcoholism and schizophrenia and that, in many cases, the alcoholic’s drinking is motivated by a desire to escape terrifying hallucinations.

□ Drinking is more likely to arouse the alcoholic than to depress him. “This,” says a Medical Unit spokesman, “is paradoxical and distinguishes the alcoholic from other people. We would like to know why.”