Psychological Medicine

Monoamine oxidase: associations with alcohol dependence, smoking and other measures of psychopathology

J. B. WHITFIELD a1c1, D. PANG a1, K. K. BUCHOLZ a1, P. A. F. MADDEN a1, A. C. HEATH a1, D. J. STATHAM a1 and N. G. MARTIN a1
a1 Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, NSW and Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia; and Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, MO, USA


Background. Many reports have appeared on associations between platelet monoamine oxidase (MAO) activity and susceptibility to psychiatric conditions; principally alcohol dependence but also conduct disorder, other drug use and depression. Recently, it has become apparent that MAO activity is inhibited by some component of cigarette smoke, and smokers have low platelet MAO activity. Since the prevalence of smoking is higher in many of the conditions in which MAO has been implicated, the MAO susceptibility associations may be partly, or entirely, false.

Methods. We have measured platelet MAO in 1551 subjects, recruited from the Australian NHMRC Twin Registry, who have provided information on alcohol use and dependence, smoking, conduct disorder, depression, attempted suicide, panic disorder and social phobia.

Results. Current smoking reduced platelet MAO activity in a significant and dose-related manner, with no evidence of lower MAO in ex-smokers or in non-smoking subjects with co-twins who smoked. Alcohol use and lifetime DSM-III-R alcohol dependence history were not associated with MAO activity when smoking was taken into account. Depression, panic disorder and social phobia showed no significant associations with platelet MAO activity. Subjects with a history of serious attempts at suicide had low platelet MAO activity; but although the difference from controls was as great as the reduction associated with smoking it was not significant after correction for smoking effects.

Conclusions. Although synaptic MAO activity undoubtedly plays a role in psychopathology, the concept that platelet MAO activity is a direct genetic marker of vulnerability to alcohol dependence cannot be sustained.

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr John B. Whitfield, Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, NSW 2050, Australia.