BACKGROUND: The children of parents who abuse alcohol typically show reduced amplitude of the P3 event-related potential wave. We determined if this effect was present in a population-based sample of older adolescent boys, whether it was associated with paternal antisocial personality and drug use, and whether it appeared in youth with childhood externalizing and substance use disorders.
METHODS: A statewide sample of 502 male youth, identified from Minnesota birth records as members of twin pairs, had their P3 amplitude measured, using a visual oddball paradigm when they were approximately 17 years old. Structured clinical interviews covering attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and substance use disorders were administered in person to the youth and his parents at the time of the P3 assessment and again to the youth 3 years later.
RESULTS: Reduced P3 was associated with disorders and paternal risk for disorders, reflecting a behavioral disinhibition spectrum that included attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, alcoholism, nicotine dependence, and illicit drug abuse and dependence. Reduced P3 at age 17 predicted the development of substance use disorders at age 20. Most effect sizes associated with these group differences exceeded 0.70, indicating medium to moderately large group differences. Maternal alcoholism and substance use during pregnancy were unrelated to P3 amplitude in offspring.
CONCLUSION: Small amplitude P3 may indicate genetic risk for a dimension of disinhibiting psychiatric disorders, including childhood externalizing, adult antisocial personality disorder, and substance use disorders.
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