Background Alcoholism is a serious public health problem. It has both genetic and environmental causes. In an effort to gain understanding of the underlying genetic susceptibility to alcoholism, a long-term study has been undertaken. The Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) provides a rich source of genetic and phenotypic data. One ongoing problem is the difficulty of reliably diagnosing alcoholism, despite many known risk factors and measurements. We have applied a well known pattern-matching method, neural network analysis, to phenotypic data provided to participants in Genetic Analysis Workshop 14 by COGA. The aim is to train the network to recognize complex phenotypic patterns that are characteristic of those with alcoholism as well as those who are free of symptoms. Our results indicate that this approach may be helpful in the diagnosis of alcoholism. Results Training and testing of input/output pairs of risk factors by means of a "feed-forward back-propagation" neural network resulted in reliability of about 94% in predicting the presence or absence of alcoholism based on 36 input phenotypic risk factors. Pruning the neural network to remove relatively uninformative factors resulted in a reduced network of 14 input factors that was still 95% reliable. Some of the factors selected by the pruning steps have been identified as traits that show either linkage or association to potential candidate regions. Conclusion The complex, multivariate picture formed by known risk factors for alcoholism can be incorporated into a neural network analysis that reliably predicts the presence or absence of alcoholism about 94–95% of the time. Several characteristics that were identified by a pruned neural network have previously been shown to be important in this disease based on more traditional linkage and association studies. Neural networks therefore provide one less traditional approach to both identifying alcoholic individuals and determining the most informative risk factors.