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Research Offers New Clues About Alcoholism, Genetics

For hundreds of years, people have suspected that alcoholism and other types of addiction may be heritable. In recent years, however, science has begun to show us – overwhelmingly, in fact – that if your parent has a drinking problem, there’s a good chance you may develop a problem with alcohol, too.

Is addiction caused by genetics, environment, or a bit of both?Researchers at Purdue and Indiana universities recently completed an important experiment aimed at solving this question. Their work was published in the journal PLoS Genetics.1

While “nurture” (our childhood surroundings)play a big part in creating alcohol use disorder, “nature” (our genetic makeup) plays a part as well. Even the most attentive parents may struggle witha child who has genes that make him or her vulnerable to addiction. Likewise, when somebody becomes an alcoholic, it does not help to blame only genetics, either.

Up to 930 Genes Impact Drinking Behavior

parent with drinking problemThe Purdue University research began with a population of genetically diverse rats. The rats were hand-selected and bred so that half of the rats displayed classic signs of alcoholism and the other half of the rats completely abstained from alcohol.1

“Understanding the genetic basis (of alcoholism) is critical for us to comprehend, treat and prevent this disease, but (it is) difficult in humans, as choice is influenced by nature and nurture,” the authors wrote in the study summary.2 They went on to state that the “results strengthened our understanding of the genetic basis of alcoholism and revealed potential genetic and neurologic-based treatments.”

The researchers performed complete genome sequencing from 10 rats in each group. They found 930 genes associated with heavy drinking. Their findings were unique, because they found the problem areas are located in genetic regulatory regions, not coding regions, as many researchers previously expected. This means that it is possible to carry the genes associated with addiction, and those genetic regulators can be switched “on” or “off”, depending on outside influences.

Animals who have many of these genetic triggers may be more prone to alcoholism than others. That doesn’t mean that they will absolutely become alcoholics—it simply means that they are at a higher risk of alcoholism and other substance use disorders.

These findings are important to prevent future addictions and to develop new treatments for existing addictions. As lead researcher Dr. William Muir has stated: “We all have the genes for alcoholism, but our genetic abilities to control it differ.”2 Understanding this conclusion will help alleviate the stigma of addiction and facilitate faster recovery.

Rats with Heavy Drinking Genes ‘Preferred Alcohol to Water’

It actually took several decades to breed rats that were hardcore drinkers. Like most humans, rats tend to know when enough is enough. But enough breeding and re-breeding of the rats “yielded a line of rats that compulsively drank to excess, preferred alcohol to water, drank to maintain intoxication, performed tasks to receive alcohol and showed signs of withdrawal if alcohol was not present,” according to the news release.

“Under the influence of alcohol, some rats became docile and fell asleep in a corner while others became aggressive,” Zhou said in the news release.In other words, some behaved differently from others, just like humans with drinking problems.

“It’s not one gene, one problem,” Muir said in the news release. “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.”

In fact, previous research on mice has shown that alcoholism is controlled by entire networks of genes—not just one gene, gene regulator, or gene coding region. A University of Texas study found that “certain genes cluster together inside the brain, much like drinking buddies of all types gather around the bar. It’s an important discovery, because it goes beyond simply identifying genes known to exist among drinkers to show how they conspire to create disease and dependence.”3

Recovery Is Possible, Even with a Family Addiction History

The Indiana researchers did identify one region in particular – the glutamate receptor signaling pathway – as a possible treatment target because of the large number of alcoholism genes it contains, according to the news release. Next, researchers will need to confirm whether the genes found in alcoholic rats also control alcoholism in humans.

Meanwhile, help is available for alcohol use disorder, even those from families with strong bloodlines of heavy drinking. Every day, thousands of people decide to fight back against addiction. Modern addiction treatment looks at the person as a whole. It considers both the psychological and physiological components of addiction and treatment for recovery.

Skywood offers state-of-the-art addiction treatment that is provided by experienced clinicians. Our modern and comfortable facility offers evidence-based treatment for a number of addiction and mental health disorders. Our recovery professionals are available to answer your questions and provide confidential information on helping yourself or a loved one build a better life.

Written by David Heitz



1 Van Hoose, N. “Drink-seeking rats provide sobering look into genetics of alcoholism.” Purdue University Agriculture News. 4 August 2016. Web. Accessed 27 June 2017.

2 Chiao-Ling, L. et al.“High Resolution Genomic Scans Reveal Genetic Architecture Controlling Alcohol Preference in Bidirectionally Selected Rat Model.” PLOS Genetics. 4 August 2016. Web. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Heitz, D. “Scientists find first gene network linked to alcoholism.” Healthline News. 9 December 2014. Web. Accessed 27 June 2017.