The researchers said their test, which measures two blood chemicals, was about 75 percent accurate in distinguishing alcoholics from people who don't have drinking problems.
Between 8 percent and 10 percent of all men and 1 percent and 2 percent of all women in the United States are estimated to be alcohol abusers.
"The study may simply provide a means for distinguishing individuals who drink a lot," said one of the researchers, Boris Tabakoff, scientific director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md. "For physicians, it is imperative to know whether problems may be alcohol related. It's awfully difficult to get a very accurate consumption history from individuals."
"On the other hand," he continued, "it (the study's results) may be more profound. It may indicate individuals who have an inherent predisposition to have problems with alcohol."
Alcoholism sometimes appears to be passed from generation to generation. Tabakoff has begun studying children of alcoholics to see whether they are more likely to have abnormalities that the blood test can detect. If so, the test could be used to identify these children early so that they could be taught to avoid alcohol.
Tabakoff developed the test with colleagues from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Veterans Administration Westside Medical Center in Chicago.
The new test measures the activity of two chemicals produced by platelets, the blood cells responsible for clotting. The substances are enzymes called monoamine oxidase and adenylate cyclase.
The researchers tested the blood of 95 male alcoholics and a comparison group of 33 people who did not have drinking problems. They found that the activity of the two enzymes was significantly reduced in alcoholics.
The differences were even apparent in 10 alcoholics who had not taken a drink for periods ranging from one to four years.
Tabakoff said the enzyme abnormalities may affect blood clotting, and this could help explain why alcoholics are more likely to suffer strokes and heart disease.
EYE-CANCER TEST. Researchers have developed a blood test to identify children at risk for an inherited form of eye cancer.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the test was highly accurate for predicting which individuals were predisposed to retinoblastoma.
Retinoblastomas are potentially fatal eye tumors found in about one in every 20,000 children in the United States. They usually are detected before the age of 5, and patients are treated with radiation, removal of the affected eye, or both.
TRACKING A HEART CONDITION. A heart condition thought to be rare may be more common than doctors have believed and could be an important cause of sudden death among young people, Italian researchers have reported.
Researchers at the University of Padua Medical School in Padua, Italy, found 12 cases of right ventricular cardiomyopathy among 60 deaths of people under age 35 that occurred from 1979 to 1986 in the Veneto Region of Italy.
"Right ventricular cardiomyopathy is currently considered an oddity and a rare cause of life-threatening (heart problems)," the researchers said in reporting their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"Our findings indicate that right ventricular cardiomyopathy may be a more common cause of sudden death in young people than has previously been suspected."
Right ventricular cardiomyopathy is a condition of unknown origin that consists of a very thin wall on the right ventricle of the heart. The thin walls can cause abnormal heart beats, which in turn can make the heart come to a sudden stop.
Barry J. Maron, a senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, said the findings were interesting but did not necessarily mean the condition was as common elsewhere as the researchers had found in Italy.
"It may be more common than previously thought in the area they are in, in northern Italy. It doesn't say anything about the United States," Maron said during a telephone interview.
The Italian researchers, led by Gaetano Thiene, acknowledged that their findings might have been anomalous in part because their sample consisted only of deaths of young people in which an autopsy had been ordered.