Using brain activity to identify risk for disorders

e of the electrical wave occurs at around 300 millisecs after the onset of the stimulus, which is why it is called the P300 ERP.

There exist a number of ways to measure ERPs in the laboratory. A subject might be shown the same picture on a computer screen again and again, but occasionally, and randomly, a different picture will appear and the subject will produce a P300 ERP in response to the rare stimulus. Or, a subject might listen to a stream of low-pitched sounds, interrupted by a high-pitched sound, to which their brain will respond with a P300 ERP. The more unusual or rare the stimulus, the larger the amplitude of the P300.

The P300 is a measure of the way the brain pays attention and discriminates between potentially important and non-important stimuli. An individual inherits some aspects of their P300. Alcoholism is also heritable. Some alcoholics react differently to stimuli than do non-alcoholics; the amplitude of their P300 response tends to be lower than that of non-alcoholics. Alcoholics with a strong family history of alcoholism tend to have the lowest P300 amplitudes of all. Even some non-drinking children of alcoholics have low P300 amplitudes. This suggests that a low P300 is not caused by drinking but is inherited. It also suggests that a person with a low P300 may be at risk of becoming an alcoholic.

"Anxious individuals tend to be less relaxed," said Enoch, "more alert and have heightened awareness. They are more likely to respond vigorously to changes in the environment. You could say that they are more 'jumpy'. They would therefore be expected to produce bigger P300 amplitude responses. Studies have also shown that people who have an anxiety disorder but are not anxious at the time of testing have high P300 amplitudes, suggesting that high P300 may be a risk factor for anxiety disorders."

Enoch added that because alcoholism is a complex disease, it is important to examine subgroups of alcoholics in w


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