Genetics of alcoholism

We've all heard the talk show hosts and advocacy groups use the saying that alcoholism is a disease.

Alcohol addiction is not a state that people typically choose for themselves, nor is it an easy problem to beat. Further, it has been understood for years that we are not all at equal risk for developing a dependence on alcohol.

Alcoholism, like many disorders, has a strong genetic component. It runs in families and is strongly associated with various psychiatric disorders. Both of these facts have pointed to it not being simply a learned behaviour or choice, but something that has biological underpinnings.

Until recently however, the relationship between genetics and alcoholism has not been clearly understood.

Today, with our growing understanding of genetics we are getting closer than ever to figuring out exactly what is inherited and how those genetic components contribute to the problem of alcoholism in many individuals.

Recent studies have zeroed in on 26 known genes and 188 variants in the code of those genes that may contribute to alcoholism.

Some of these genetic variants appear to be linked not only to alcoholism, but also to other types of addictions. This is not entirely surprising since it is well known that addicted individuals have frequently abused or been addicted to many different substances either simultaneously or at different times during life.

Along with research pinpointing specific genes that seem to be involved in alcoholism and other addictions, other research has focused on differences in brain function and chemicals among addicts. Alcoholics and other addicts seem to have less of some dopamine receptors in certain areas of the brain than non-addicted individuals.

Of five subtypes of dopamine receptors, the D2 receptor is less common among alcoholics. This has recently been shown in studies of rats that have been bred to be genetically predisposed to heavy alcohol consumption. Among these alcoholic rats there are less D2 receptors than in their peers and when the receptors are increased through genetic manipulation, the rats consume less alcohol.

Further research looked at the brains of two groups of humans, non-alcoholic individuals with a strong family history of alcoholism and non-alcoholics with no family history of the disease.

Using positron emission topography (PET) brain scans, D2 receptors were examined with the theory that perhaps the first group would have some protective mechanism that accounted for their non-alcoholism in spite of family history.

These scans found that this first group had more D2 receptors in certain brain areas than the group of individuals without a family history. These findings suggest that increasing D2 receptors in the brain might provide a treatment or prevention for alcoholism and perhaps other addictions. Neuroreceptors such as the D2 receptor are not static, they can be increased and decreased in a variety of ways.

More research into this promising area is needed, but these preliminary findings offer a promising step in the quest to understand how addiction functions within the brain and how we can develop new treatments to help addicted individuals get better and to prevent future addictions among people who are particularly susceptible.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one is addicted to alcohol or other substances, help is available. Speak with a support or addictions group or your family doctor to learn ways to deal with your addiction. It is possible to treat addiction successfully and doing so may save your life.


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