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Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1996 Feb;20(1):3-8.

Harman and norharman in alcoholism: correlations with psychopathology and long-term changes.

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  • 1Department of Neuropsychopharmacology, Free University, Berlin, Germany.


In the search for mechanisms specific for alcoholism, it has become evident that beta-carbolines (BCs; e.g., harman and norharman) are compounds that may act on brain reward systems, thereby mediating an increase in voluntary ethanol (ETOH) drinking in animals. This study was undertaken to analyze relationships between these compounds and clinical variables (e.g., family history, personality data, and affect) in alcoholics and to trace the time course of blood concentrations in subjects abstaining from alcohol for at least 6 months. Nonalcoholics were investigated during sober and ETOH-loading conditions (1 g ETOH/kg body weight). Levels of harman were elevated in the chronically intoxicated alcoholics and correlated with the scores on the self-rating depression (SDS) and the self-rating anxiety (SAS) scales. The group of alcoholics with at least one alcoholic parent had higher levels than the group without such a history. Levels remained elevated for 6 months. Norharman levels were only slightly elevated on the day of admission. They were correlated to high harm avoidance and SDS scores. A family history of alcoholism and the severity of alcoholism as assessed by the number of ICD-10 criteria fulfilled were correlated with norharman levels. Long-term observation revealed elevated levels of norharman after 3 months of abstinence, but not after 6 months. The association of harman levels with anxiety and depression demonstrated in the present study suggests that alcoholics with high harman levels use alcoholic beverages as self-medication in an attempt to overcome possible anxiogenic/depressiogenic actions of harman. Norharman levels are less strongly associated with these mood states, but significantly correlated to harm avoidance tendencies. It has been suggested that the activity of the indolergic neurons is relatively high in individuals with a high harm avoidance score. Biosynthesis of norharman might be stimulated under these conditions (tryptamine serves as precursor).

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