Can Binge Drinking Alter DNA?

By Paul Gaita 03/12/19

For a new study, scientists investigated whether heavy drinkers experienced genetic changes due to their alcohol consumption.

man binge drinking alcohol

Researchers have determined that binge drinking may alter a person's genetic makeup and result in an even greater desire to consume alcohol.

A recent study suggested that two genes that help to control drinking behavior become altered, and as a result, have different responses in individuals who classify as binge or heavy drinkers.

The study appears to underscore the notion that genetics play a more significant role in alcohol and drug dependency, as well as the possibility for scientists to determine a predisposition for addiction.

The study, conducted by researchers from Rutgers University and Yale University and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, focused specifically on genetic responses produced in binge or heavy drinkers—which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are defined as men who consume five or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period, and women who consume four or more in the same period, resulting in a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or above, at least four times per month. 

The two genes at the center of the study are PER2 and POMC, both of which are involved in the regulation of drinking behavior. PER2 plays a role in the body's biological clock, while POMC regulates the stress response system, according to a press release from Rutgers.

In binge drinkers, both genes were found to exhibit a change caused by alcohol called methylation, which employs a chemical tag that retains the DNA sequence of the gene but also retains the ability to turn those genes on or off.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, environmental stressors like drugs or alcohol, but also emotional stress, can cause methylation in different genes.

To support the notion of genetic change due to alcohol, groups of test subjects—differentiated by their level of drinking (moderate, heavy and binge)—were shown stress-related, neutral or alcohol-related images, as well as containers of beer, and were allowed to taste beer while their motivation to drink was evaluated.

The researchers found that binge and heavy drinkers who exhibited signs of genetic change also showed an increased desire to consume alcohol.

Though the exact impact of the DNA change will require additional research, the study authors believe that focusing on genetic alteration will lead to the discovery of a biomarker, or genetic indicator, that can determine if a person is more likely to develop an alcohol or drug dependency.

"That's always been the hope of all mental illness," said Bill Jangro, medical director for the division of substance abuse programs at Thomas Jefferson Hospital, to the Inquirer. "That we would find a medical cause that is somehow reversible."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.