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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Genetics and alcoholism

The contribution of genetics to an understanding alcoholism and other diseases having addictive behavior has been wrought with controversy for the past two hundred years. Because this is a politically and socially charged issue, there has been much debate regarding the true genetic contribution to alcoholism. Traditional medicine states that disease can be attributed to certain environmental conditions, specific gene alleles inherited from the parents or some combination of both of these factors. Most estimates of the contribution of genetics to alcoholism put the contribution of genetics about equal to that of the environment. Thus, the contribution of genetics to the disease is said to be about 50%. It should be noted, however, that various researchers have put this contribution as low as 10% or as high as 70%. The argument for heredity having a relatively strong influence on this disease rests primarily in studies involving families, adoptees and twins.
There is strong evidence that alcoholism runs in families. Most research studies in this area have demonstrated that about one fourth of the sons of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves. Daughters of alcoholics develop this disease about 5% of the time. While the estimates for the rate of alcoholism vary greatly for the general population, these rates are usually higher. In fact, the most consistent risk factor for developing alcoholism is a strong family history. Despite this data that shows a familial relationship for alcoholism, it could be argued that it is a learned behavior. Evidence from adoption studies further supports the contention of a genetic basis for alcoholism.
The use of adoptees is a common method to attempt to separate the effects of the environment from genetics. The rationale behind this method is that if biological children of alcoholic parents develop the disease at a greater rate than the general population when they reside with parents who do not have the disease there must be a strong genetic component to the disease. Most studies in this area have concluded that despite residing with adoptive, nonalcoholic parents, children who had alcoholic biological parents were at high risk for alcoholism. These rates reported were similar to that of children who grew up in the homes of their alcoholic biological parents. These studies strongly suggest a hereditary basis for alcoholism. This contention is further supported by twin studies which show that a second identical twin is much more likely to develop the disease if the first one developed it. Because identical twins have the same genetic instructions, this finding is consistent with the contention of a genetic component to alcoholism.
Other research models also support the assertion that heredity plays an important role in alcoholism. Researchers have turned to the science of molecular biology in an attempt to decipher this complex problem. One of the more compelling findings was that genetically engineered mice that had lacked a specific dopamine receptor gene in the brain were less likely to prefer alcohol and have a sensitivity to it than siblings that had the receptor. The results indicated that taking away the receptor decreased alcohol consumption by 50%. Although extensive testing needs to be completed, it is possible that mutations of these receptors in the brain may contribute to alcoholism in humans. If this avenue of research proves to be fruitful, it may be possible to treat alcoholism in the distant future through manipulation of this gene.
It is likely that alcoholism results from a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. In fact, most researchers working in this area believe that it is unlikely that science will determine the alcoholism gene. Rather, it is likely that the interaction of multiple genes contributes to the development of alcoholism. It should also be noted that those individuals with this array of genes are not predetermined to be alcoholics. While there is tremendous evidence that genes can exert influence over behavior, there is little support for the contention that they cause it. Thus, environment still plays a vital role in the development of this disease. While the exact alleles and their specific contribution to the development of alcoholism cannot be concluded with any certainty, it is known that genetics plays a role in the development of this disease, the actual mechanisms on how this happens has yet to be discovered by science.

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