Phosphatidylethanol in Postmortem Brain and Serum Ethanol at Time of Death

Peter M. Thompson, Nathalie Hill-Kapturczak, Marisa Lopez-Cruzan, Luis A. Alvarado, Alok K. Dwivedi, Martin A. Javors

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Background: Phosphatidylethanol (PEth) is a metabolite of ethanol (EtOH), and its concentration in whole blood samples is a direct biomarker of alcohol consumption. Because PEth is also present in the brain and incorporated in lipid membranes, it can be used to classify deceased individuals on alcohol consumption status at the time of death. The purpose of this study was to detect PEth homologs in postmortem brains of individuals known to have had alcohol use disorder (AUD) and to determine the relationship between serum alcohol at the time of death and PEth in the cerebellum (CE) and orbital frontal cortex (OFC). Methods: Postmortem brain was collected and stored according to standard protocol. Psychiatric symptoms experienced prior to death were obtained by next of kin psychological autopsy to categorize subjects. Thirty male subjects were chosen for analyses: 10 with AUD with positive serum EtOH levels present at time of autopsy (AUD-W), 10 with AUD without positive serum EtOH levels (AUD-WO), and 10 controls. PEth 16:0/18:1 and 16:0/18:2 were quantified in 50 mg of CE and OFC of human postmortem brain using HPLC and mass spectrometric detection (triple quadrupole). Results: Results of this study were as follows: (i) PEth 16:0/18:1 and 16:0/18:2 were detected in the CE and OFC of all subjects diagnosed with AUD, (ii) PEth 16:0/18:1 levels were about 10-fold higher than PEth 16:0/18:2 in all subjects and both areas of brain, (iii) AUD-W subjects had higher PEth homolog levels in CE and OFC than controls and AUD-WO subjects, (iv) PEth 16:0/18:1, but not PEth 16:0/18:2, levels in CE and OFC of AUD-W subjects correlated significantly with serum EtOH levels at the time of death. Conclusions: Quantification of combined PEth homolog levels in postmortem human brain is a good candidate as a diagnostic factor to classify drinking status, especially for those with AUD at the time of death. For alcohol research studies with postmortem brain, verification of drinking status is essential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2557-2562
Number of pages6
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Alcoholism
  • Cerebellum
  • Orbital Frontal Cortex
  • PEth
  • Postmortem Brain
  • Suicide

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology


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