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The Genetics of Alcoholism

For the last 25 years, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) has funded a comprehensive research effort to identify the link between genes and alcoholism, known as the Collaborative Studies on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA).Though considerable time, money and effort has been has been expended on this effort, no single gene has been identified as distinctly linked to alcoholism, and no gene-based therapy had proven effective across a wide enough population to be considered a breakthrough. On its website, the NIAA states “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism.” 

Genes Linked to Alcoholism

A host of genes have been linked to alcohol abuse, and multiple genetic pathways have been identified that may make a person more likely to become an alcoholic. In the future, this important research may lead to genetic tests capable of identifying a person’s level of risk for alcoholism, and also lead to individual gene therapy for alcoholics. However, what is becoming clear to researchers is that the more they know, the more they don’t know—the genetic story is just too complicated. Quoted in a recent article on the addiction and recovery website, Dr. Howard Edenberg states:

“It’s most critical to start any discussion [of the genetics of alcoholism] with the clear understanding that we’re not dealing with a single gene disease. We’re dealing with a complex genetic disease in which there’s good evidence that … no one gene is determinative.”

Unfortunately, the media has a tendency to sensationalize each new discovery made by science. Articles with titles like, “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Gene” and “Gene Mutation for Excessive Drinking Found” have become commonplace. However, upon closer examination, it’s easy to see that it’s the reporters writing on the research, rather than the researchers themselves, who are quick to make such grandiose claims. The truth is that many of the genes linked to alcohol are only connected by way of other factors. For instance, research in lab rats identifies certain genes that are related to alcoholism co-factors, such as anxiety and depression. When rats with genes manipulated to increase their anxiety and depression are shown to have a preference for alcohol over water in a controlled experiment, researchers carefully describe a possible causal connection between these genes and alcoholism—but when the media gets hold of these studies, we end up with headlines like “Alcoholism-Prevention Pill is Right Around the Corner.”

Latest Research on Genes and Alcoholism

In an article published this May in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry, lead researcher Alexander Niculescuidentified a group of 11 genes that are closely linked to alcoholism. Based on their research, Niculescu and his colleagues developed a test that gives each person a “genetic risk score” for becoming an alcoholic. To date, this is the closest science has come to giving us a genetic test for alcoholism. Despite the success of his work, Niculescu himself is cautious. In an interview published on HealthDay, a blog sponsored by the National Institute of Health, he warns against jumping to any hasty conclusions based on his research, stating that, "Genes are not destiny, but knowing your genetic risk profile can empower you to make smart lifestyle choices."

There may be a future when our parents know even before we’re born whether we’re likely to become alcoholics, and in that future there may be gene therapies available to prevent this from happening. That future is not now. For now, there is no magic pill. What research tells us is that in the here and now, a multi-modal, evidence-based approach to controlling alcoholism works most effectively. Lifestyle changes, support groups and therapy are our best bet in the battle this devastating disease.







Posted on August 14th, 2014
Posted in Alcoholism

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