“People with family histories of alcoholism tend to have lower levels of endorphins – the endogenous morphine that is responsible for many of our pleasure responses – than do people genetically disinclined to alcoholism. Alcohol will slightly raise the endorphin level of people without the genetic basis of alcoholism; it will dramatically raise endorphin level of people with that genetic basis.”
~ Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression
Let us say this clearly – when a person decides to drink alcohol, it is entirely a choice. That choice can be influenced by outside factors, such as peer pressure, family disapproval, and the overall availability, but it remains a choice, nonetheless.
However, once an individual begins to regularly drink, their personal risk of developing alcohol dependence, then needing alcohol dependence treatment, is largely determined by their genetic makeup. Simply put, some people respond differently to alcohol.
Put another way – alcoholism is not a matter of choice. Neither is it a moral failing or due to a lack of willpower. It is a matter of biology.
Family History as Verification
It has long been established that one of the most reliable and accurate indicators of an individual’s risk for alcoholism is their personal family history. Most frequently, this “family history” means that one or both of their parents were alcoholic.
In fact, some studies have shown that the children of parents who suffered from alcoholism are approximately 4 times more likely to have problems with alcohol. These children are also at higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems.
A Definite Genetic Presence
In 2004, a study conducted by Subash C. Pandey, Ph.D., A psychiatrist with the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that a gene that regulates brain function and learning is also involved in the process of alcohol dependence and withdrawal.
The test was conducted on specially-bred rats, and those with less of the protein produced by the gene were increasingly anxious and showed a marked preference for alcohol. On average, the rats that had a deficiency of the protein drank approximately 50% more alcohol than normal rats.
In a news release, Dr. Pandey stated, “Some 30% to 70 % of alcoholics are reported to suffer from anxiety and depression. Drinking is a way for these individuals to self-medicate.” The study is the “first direct evidence that a deficiency in the (gene) is associated with anxiety and alcohol-drinking behavior.”
According to research conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, there may be a whole network of genes at least partially responsible for alcoholism.
The research team obtained brain tissue from both non-alcoholics and alcoholics and then compared genetic code patterns from each. The discovery is very encouraging – there is a particular formation of genes that are only found in alcoholics, but not in non-alcoholics.
Dr. R. Adron Harris, the director of UT’s Wagner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research and the co-author of the study, said, “We now have a much clearer picture of where specific traits related to alcohol dependence overlap with specific expressions in genetic code.”
Dr. Harris went on to say, “This provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the gene sets the drive alcohol dependence.”
The implications of this study suggest that it is possible to conduct more thorough screening when judging an individual’s risk factors for alcoholism, perhaps even before that person begins to use alcohol at all.
Despite the genetic link, it has been established that there are other factors that also strongly influence the likelihood that an individual will develop problems with alcohol. Other causal factors may be environmental or behavioral in nature:
- Binge Drinking – When a person overindulges in alcohol by regular binge-drinking or heavy drinking over a period of time, the brain’s reward center can be affected.
- Underage Drinking – Teenagers’ brains are still developing, and when alcohol use begins early, the risk of developing alcohol dependence later is magnified.
- Alcoholic Environment – This type of environment is present when one or more of an individual’s parents abuse drugs or alcohol. 70% of Adult Children of Alcoholics also develop compulsive behaviors.
- Trauma – This factor occurs when a person suffers a severely traumatic experience and attempts to self-medicate with alcohol in order to process the experience
The final answer is that it has been conclusively proven that genetics plays a large role in the development of alcohol-related disorders. Armed with that information, it may be possible for physicians and addiction specialists to formulate new evaluation protocols that should help diagnose alcoholism in a much timelier manner.