Progression in substance use initiation: A multilevel discordant monozygotic twin design

Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd, Wendy S. Slutske, Arielle R. Deutsch, Michael T. Lynskey, Arpana Agrawal, Pamela A.F. Madden, Kathleen K. Bucholz, Andrew C. Heath, Nicholas G. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Considerable attention has been paid to the "gateway" pattern of drug use initiation in which individuals progress from tobacco and alcohol use to cannabis and other illicit drugs. The extent to which this sequence reflects a causal impact of licit substance use on illicit substance involvement remains unclear. Clarifying the mechanisms underlying substance use initiation may help inform our understanding of risk for psychopathology, as increasing research is demonstrating associations between initiation patterns and heavier involvement. This study examined patterns of substance use initiation using a discordant twin design. Participants were 3,476 monozygotic twins (37% male) from the Australian Twin Registry who reported on their ages of tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis initiation. Multilevel proportional hazard regression models were used to (a) estimate within-twin-pair and between-twin-pair contributions to associations between the ages of onset of different drugs; and (b) examine whether the magnitude of effects differed as a function of the order of substance use initiation. Finding significant effects within twin pairs would support the hypothesis that the age of initiation of a substance causally influences the age of initiation of a subsequent substance. Finding significant effects between twin pairs would support the operation of familial influences that explain variation in the ages of initiation of multiple drugs. Within-twin-pair effects for typical patterns were modest. When initiation was atypical, however, larger within-twin-pair effects were observed and causal influences were more strongly implicated. Results support the utility of examining the timing and ordering of substance use initiation within sophisticated, genetically informative designs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)596-605
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Discordant twins
  • Multilevel modeling
  • Substance use initiation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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