Until now, scientists have never been able to identify an exact cause for alcohol addiction. It has always been believed that various factors contribute to the development of this illness, but new research is suggesting that alcoholism is actually determined by genes. This may allow for the identification of potential alcoholics in the future.

Alcohol Study

The study by a team of researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine has identified 930 genes that are linked to compulsive drinking. Around the same number of genes are responsible for the determination of human height, meaning that developing treatment for alcohol addiction could prove to be more complex than previously thought.

Professor of Genetics at Purdue University, William Muir, said, “It’s not one gene, one problem. This trait is controlled by vast numbers of genes and networks. This probably dashes water on the idea of treating alcoholism with a single pill.”

Family History of Alcoholism

When it comes to causes of alcohol addiction, one of the leading factors has always been a family history of alcoholism. Until now, there has been some confusion as to whether it was inherited genes or shared environment that caused the children of alcoholics to be more likely to develop the condition themselves.

Professor Muir added, “It’s very difficult to tease out the difference between what your genes are telling you to do and what you choose to do.”

Identifying Genes Linked to Alcoholism

The team of researchers used rats in their study as these animals share a large number of genes with humans. A selection of rats with diverse genes were chosen to begin with, and then bred in two different lines. One group was bred to drink alcohol while the other was kept away from the substance completely. The scientists admitted, though, that it was difficult to get the rats to drink due to the species’ natural aversion to it. Professor Muir said, “But typical of any genetic study, there’s always an outlier – in this case, a rat that will drink large amounts.”

It took a long time to create a group of rats that had a compulsion to drink excessively. However, once it happened, the scientists had a group of rats that chose alcohol over water, drank compulsively in order to stay intoxicated, and showed symptoms of withdrawal when they could not access it. They also found that the rats would perform for them if it meant they could get alcohol.

Professor Feng Zhou, who also worked on the study and is a professor of neuroscience at Indiana University School of Medical Science, said that even within the group of alcoholic rats, they responded in different ways to intoxication. He added, “Under the influence of alcohol, some rats became docile and fell asleep in a corner while others became aggressive.”

Developing Treatments for Alcohol Addiction

Upon further study of the rats, the team found that there was a total of 930 genes that were associated with compulsive alcohol consumption. Most of these genes were found to be within the genetic regulatory regions of the brain, despite scientists expecting them to be in the coding regions. Professor Muir said, “We all have the genes for alcoholism, but our genetic abilities to control it differ.”

The complex nature of the genes associated with excessive alcohol consumption could make it more complicated when it comes to developing treatments for alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, researchers did pinpoint a specific receptor in the brain that is responsible for controlling reward. They believe that this could provide the potential for the development of treatments as it contains a number of genes associated with alcoholism.

Further Study

The team knows that more work needs to be done now, and the next step will be to ensure that the genes that have been identified in the rats with alcoholism are similar to those found in human alcoholics. Researchers were keen to point out that although they now have evidence to suggest that genes play a major role, environment is still a factor in the development of a person’s alcohol habits.

Professor Zhou said, “Even with the same genetics, one person might be prone to getting drunk while another doesn’t drink at all. Your environment can trigger the expression of genetic tendencies toward alcoholism.”

Professor Muir added that those with a history of alcohol addiction cannot just blame their drinking habits on their parents.

Overcoming Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is an illness affecting millions of people all over the world, so news that researchers are constantly working hard to find effective treatments will be welcomed by all those who have been affected by it.

Alcoholism is an illness that currently cannot be cured, but it can be treated and managed with the help of professional counsellors and therapists. Those who want to overcome an alcohol addiction will have to quit drinking, go through detox, and then complete a programme of rehabilitation that is designed to help them learn to live without relying on alcohol.

Source: More than 900 genes linked to alcoholism in rats (Futurity)