For hundreds of years, cultures all over the world have viewed alcoholism (or alcohol use disorder as it is now called) as a moral failing – a problem of succumbing to temptation.
After all – why was it that some people had a drinking problem while others did not? Must be a choice – right?
Medical researchers now know that alcoholism is a chronic disease with genetic origins.
And 16 million Americans suffer with the problem daily. Eighty-eight thousand die from alcohol-related causes each year.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have just released results of a large genomic study of some 275,000 Americans – the most extensive such study ever conducted.
The team found 18 genetic variants of significance associated with either heavy alcohol consumption, alcoholism, or both. Interestingly, only five of the genetic variants overlapped. The other genetic variants found were either associated with heavy consumption only or alcoholism only.
Most importantly, the data suggests that heavy alcohol consumption alone does not per se lead to alcoholism. Key genetic variants must also be present for a person to be susceptible to becoming an alcoholic.
According to Henry Kranzler MD, one of the lead authors: "This study has revealed an important genetic independence of these two traits that we haven't seen as clearly before… Focusing on variants only linked to alcoholism may help identify people at risk and find targets for the development of medications to treat it. The same applies to alcohol consumption, as those variants could inform interventions to help reduce consumption in heavy drinkers, who face their own set of adverse effects."
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*Source material: Henry R. Kranzler, Hang Zhou, Rachel L. Kember, Rachel Vickers Smith, Amy C. Justice, Scott Damrauer, Philip S. Tsao, Derek Klarin, Aris Baras, Jeffrey Reid, John Overton, Daniel J. Rader, Zhongshan Cheng, Janet P. Tate, William C. Becker, John Concato, Ke Xu, Renato Polimanti, Hongyu Zhao, Joel Gelernter. Genome-wide association study of alcohol consumption and use disorder in 274,424 individuals from multiple populations. Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1)