The Problem With Genetic Testing for Alcoholism
Direct-to-consumer tests for the alcoholism gene may create more harm than good for those who test positive.
Doctors may feel they're doing patients a service by informing them if they have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But a new study suggests that receiving this information can have a problematic effect—causing drinkers feelings of hopelessness, sadness and a heightened sense that they can't control their drinking. This raises particular concern over direct-to-consumer genetic tests for alcoholism that might have the power to change a person's emotional state, behavior and attitudes. "We have about 1,600 genetic tests available now," says psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod of the University of Sydney, who led the study. "We should have better knowledge about how to communicate these results in a manner that doesn't create harm." The study tested 160 undergraduates from the University of Rochester and gave each of them a bogus genetic test result, telling them whether or not they had a gene associated with alcoholism. The findings showed that people responded with emotional positivity when told they didn't have the gene. But they were emotionally negative—as well as less in-control over their subsequent drinking—after they were informed that they did have gene. Dar-Nimrod says this information is important because with the exception of a few genetic-related diseases, having a particular gene only increases the risk of getting a condition, by a small or uncertain amount in many cases. He says the media can bolster fears about "genetic determinism" when in reality, the risks are negligible.