Scientists Identify More Genes at Work in Young Adults With Alcohol Problems

Posted on February 26th, 2015

A team of American, British and Australian researchers examining the impact that specific genes and overall genetic profiles have on young adults’ odds of developing problems with alcohol have found four previously unidentified gene variations that lead to an increase in young adults’ alcohol-related risks.

Young adults in the U.S. maintain a higher rate of alcohol intake than other segments of the population and also have higher rates for the development of diagnosable alcohol problems (alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse). Researchers are well aware that any given person’s genetic background strongly influences his or her chances of experiencing such problems, but specific genetic variations or combinations have only been recently studied.

Alcohol and Young Adulthood

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses a project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to keep track of monthly alcohol use and rates of involvement in potentially problematic drinking behaviors among all Americans over the age of 11. As of December 2014, the latest NSDUH findings cover the year 2013. In that year, the highest rate of monthly alcohol intake (69.3 percent) occurred among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25; young adults between the ages of 26 and 29 had a marginally lower monthly consumption rate of 69 percent. Monthly alcohol intake was much lower (a rate of 43.8 percent) among the youngest adults between the ages of 18 and 20.

In addition to maintaining the highest monthly drinking rate, young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 are the nation’s most frequent participants in heavy drinking and binge drinking, two patterns of alcohol consumption known for their ability to boost the lifetime risks for developing alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse. Young adults between the ages of 26 and 29 maintain the nation’s second-highest rates for heavy drinking and binge drinking. Very young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 binge drink substantially less often than their older counterparts and also engage in heavy drinking somewhat less frequently.

Genetics and Drinking Problems

Your genetic background creates about half of your overall chances of being diagnosed with a drinking problem. Some of this risk is the result of having highly impactful variations of specific genes that pass down through your family bloodline. However, much of any person’s hereditary exposure to alcohol problems is the result of complex interactions between multiple, relatively small genetic variations that occur throughout much of the total population. In addition, both large and small genetic variations may only lead to alcohol-related issues in people exposed to certain environmental factors not passed down through genetic pathways.

Genetics, Alcohol and Young Adults

In the study published in late 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol and Australia’s University of Queensland used data from a long-term British undertaking called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to determine the impact that small- and large-scale genetic variation has on the chances that any given young adult will develop diagnosable alcohol problems. A total of 4,304 young-adult participants from this larger project contributed information to the current study. All of these participants underwent extensive genetic testing designed to identify any known risks for the development of alcoholism/alcohol abuse, as well as any previously unidentified potential risks. The researchers cross-referenced the results of this testing with the results of several screening tools specifically designed to detect real-world problems with alcohol consumption.

The researchers looked at a total of 22,880 genetic variations that could potentially make young adults more likely to develop alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse. After completing their analysis, they concluded that just four of these variations actually lead to real-world increases in young adults’ alcohol-related risks. In addition, they concluded that the presence of a single, larger genetic profile (overall combination of genes) also increases young adults’ chances of developing diagnosable alcohol problems.

The study’s authors note that none of the individual genetic variations identified during their project were already viewed as risks for the development of alcohol problems in young adults. Parts of the body affected by these variations include the pathways in the brain responsible for sending and receiving signals and creating new brain cells, as well as certain tissues and structures not located in the brain.

 

 

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