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Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013 Jun;21(3):214-21. doi: 10.1037/a0032284.

Biphasic effects of alcohol on delay and probability discounting.

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Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University, and Division of Behavioral Genetics, Department of Psychiatry, Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, RI 02903, USA.


Delay discounting and probability discounting are behavioral economic indices of impulsive and risky decision making that have been associated with addictive behavior, but the acute biphasic effects of alcohol on these decision-making processes are not well understood. This study sought to investigate the biphasic effects of alcohol on delay and probability discounting across the ascending and descending limbs of the breath alcohol concentration (BAC) curve, which are respectively characterized by the stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol. Delay and probability discounting were measured at four time points (Baseline, Ascending, Descending, and End point) across the BAC curve at two target alcohol doses (40 mg/dl and 80 mg/dl) in healthy adults (n = 23 and 27, for both doses, respectively). There was no significant effect of alcohol on delay discounting at either dose. Alcohol significantly affected probability discounting, such that reduced discounting for uncertain rewards was evident during the descending limb of the BAC curve at the lower dose (p < .05) and during both the ascending and descending limb of the BAC curve at the higher dose (p < .05). Thus, alcohol resulted in increased risky decision making, particularly during the descending limb, which is primarily characterized by the sedative effects of alcohol. These findings suggest that the biphasic effects of alcohol across the ascending and descending limbs of the BAC have differential effects on behavior related to decision-making for probabilistic, but not delayed, rewards. Parallels to and distinctions from previous findings are discussed.

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