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Item Response Theory Analysis to Assess Dimensionality of Substance Use Disorder Abuse and Dependence Symptoms

Levent Kirisci, Ralph Tarter, Maureen Reynolds, Michael Vanyukov


Background. Item response theory (IRT) based studies conducted on diverse samples showed a single dominant factor for DSM-III-R and DSM-IV substance use disorder (SUD) abuse and dependence symptoms of alcohol, cannabis, sedative, cocaine, stimulants, and opiates use disorders. IRT provides the opportunity, within a person-centered framework, to accurately gauge each person’s severity of disorder that, in turn, informs required intensiveness of treatment.

Objectives. The aim of this study was to determine whether the SUD symptoms indicate a unidimensional trait or instead need to be conceptualized and quantified as a multidimensional scale.

Methods. The sample was composed of families of adult SUD+ men (n=349), and SUD+ women (n=173), who qualified for DSM-III-R diagnosis of substance use disorder (abuse or dependence) and families of adult men and women who did not qualify for a SUD diagnosis (SUD- men: n=190, SUD- women: n=133). An expanded version of the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R (SCID) was administered to characterize lifetime and current substance use disorders. Item response theory methodology was used to assess the dimensionality of DSM-III-R SUD abuse and dependence symptoms.

Results. A bi-factor model provided the optimal representation of the factor structure of SUD symptoms in males and females. SUD symptoms are scalable as indicators of a single common factor, corresponding to general (non-drug-specific, common) liability to addiction, combined with drug-specific liabilities.

Conclusions. IRT methodology used to quantify the continuous general liability to addiction (GLA) latent trait in individuals having SUD symptoms was found effective for accurately measuring SUD severity in men and women. This may be helpful for person-centered medicine approaches to effectively address intensity of treatment.


item response theory, bi-factor model, substance use disorder, factor analysis, dimensionality

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