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How Strong is the Connection Between Genes and Alcoholism?

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs available due to its legality and ease of availability. A study from the World Health Organization revealed that more than 3 million people die from alcohol-related deaths every year. With the amount of yearly deaths almost equivalent to the population of Connecticut, the necessity of research on alcohol dependence and alcoholism is at an all-time high. Multiple organizations in place conduct research into the connection between genes and alcoholism every year. Have you ever questioned the connection between genes and alcoholism? Alcohol dependence seemingly runs in families as many who struggle with the issue point towards a parent who is an alcoholic as well. Studies have shown a combination of biological, psychological, environmental, and sociological factors contribute to alcohol abuse, but how much of the blame can we pin on genetics?

Collaborative Studies on Genetics of Alcoholism

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism was established in 1970 to conduct research on the origins of alcohol dependence and alcoholism. A faction of the National Institutes of Health, the NIAAA studies the connection between genes and alcoholism with their “Collaborative Studies on Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) Study,” in place since 1989. The goal of COGA is to “identify the specific genes that can influence a person’s likelihood of developing alcoholism,” with over 17,702 individuals included in the study thus far. COGA has helped to pinpoint specific genes that affect a person’s reaction to the way their body processes alcohol. AIDH1B and ALDH2 contribute to the processing of the enzyme acetaldehyde, produced when alcohol is ingested. An excess amount of acetaldehyde causes flushing and nausea, in addition to other feelings of discomfort. Certain variations in the AIDH1B and ALDH2 genes produce a “protective effect” in individuals, causing their body not to break down acetaldehyde quickly enough, resulting in their feeling sick after drinking varying amounts of alcohol. This variation tends to not be present in those with alcohol dependence.

The Effect of Genetics on Alcoholism

In the report “Who is At Risk for Alcoholism?” by Ph.D.’s Tatiana Faroud, Howard J. Edenberg, and John C. Crabbe, they assess some of the studies conducted by the NIAAA. Twin, family, and adoption studies take place to look into the effect of genetics on alcoholism. In twin studies, researchers compare the disease status between pairs of identical and fraternal twins. Identical twins, who share identical genetic makeups, tend to show higher correlations of alcohol dependence than their fraternal counterparts, who only share 50% of similar makeup. This implies the effect of genetic makeup on the presence of alcoholism in an individual.

Blaming Genetics Doesn’t Take Into Account Alcoholism as a Whole

As mentioned previously, genetics contribute to roughly half of the variance in the presence of alcoholism; psychological, environmental, and sociological factors are at play as well.  In “Who is At Risk for Alcoholism,” the Ph.D.’s look at studies regarding families who have adopted. Some individuals who share no similar genetic makeup yet come from alcoholic parents also exhibit signs of alcohol dependence and alcoholism. While genetics are an important piece of the equation to consider, to look at the origination of an individual’s alcoholic tendencies without also looking at these other factors fails to provide a complete picture. Researchers must take into account the entirety of a person’s biological and environmental experience in order to properly determine the causes of alcoholism.

The Effect of Genes on the Treatment of Alcoholism

Researchers have scratched the surface of determining which genes affect an individual’s predisposition for alcohol dependence or alcoholism. The next question is whether genes affect their response to treatment. Certain drugs for the treatment of alcoholism such as naltrexone or disulfiram occasionally have no effect on certain people. Research has shown that the medications react properly in people with a certain gene, but for those, without the gene, the medication does not work properly. When instances like this occur does that mean there is no hope for recovery? Researchers believe that further study of genes that affect alcoholism and its treatment will help to properly diagnose and treat those who struggle with alcohol problems. As more is discovered and additional medications are manufactured, doctors will be able to find the proper treatment to ensure hope of recovery for every individual in the grips of alcoholism.

Genetics Don’t Doom an Individual to an Alcoholic Death

The connection between genes and alcoholism doesn’t mean an inevitable alcoholic death. Even for those in whom medications do not react properly, there are many other options for the treatment of alcohol dependence and alcoholism available today.

  • Inpatient Centers

Inpatient alcohol treatment centers offer addled alcoholics a safe environment in which to detoxify and get through withdrawals. They offer varying levels of care depending on the needs of their patients.

  • Residential Facilities

Residential facilities are a living space shared by a group of people in recovery from alcohol dependence and alcoholism. These facilities often provide counseling and take groups to 12-step meetings outside the program. They are a fantastic option for those who don’t feel comfortable enough returning to their old living environment during the first year of sobriety.

  • Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs are an offering for people who have full schedules that don’t allow time off for full-time treatment. Available at varying degrees of intensity, outpatient programs offer counseling in both individual and group sessions and are aimed at providing the alcohol-dependent person with the coping skills necessary for long-term sobriety.

  • 12-Step Programs

Available for free and offered almost any day of the week, these programs provide a consistent community of likeminded individuals, all with the same goal in mind: consistent, one-day-at-a-time sobriety.