NIAAA Study Links Gene Variant to Compulsive Drinking

By John Lavitt 08/03/15

Researchers underscored how genetic factors can play a role in determining who develops alcohol problems.


As researchers zero in on the genetic root of alcoholism, a new National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA) study has identified a gene variant that is directly linked to compulsive drinking.

According to the results of a recent animal study, the gene variant affects the release of a specific brain protein that can put a person at greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, a division of the National Institutes of Health, funded the study.

Scientists found that mice carrying the gene variant would consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Despite the negative consequences, the presence of the Met68BDNF gene variant, which reduces the release of brain-derived neurotrophic (BDNF) factor, led directly to the abusive behavior. BDNF plays a role in the survival of existing neurons and the growth of new neurons and synapses. In other words, less brain activity removed the inhibition and led to compulsive drinking to the point of negative consequences.

Dr. George Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, underlined the importance of the study. “Genetic factors play a role in determining who develops alcohol problems," Dr. Koob said. "By understanding the genetic underpinnings of alcohol use disorder, we will be better able to develop targeted treatment and prevention strategies.”

The negative effect of the reduction of the BDNF factor seemed to be specific to alcohol consumption in the mice. Although the lack of the BDNF factor is known to lead to mental illness in human beings, it did not appear to have this effect on the mice except in relation to alcohol consumption. The human form of this gene variant leads to a reduction in the normal function of BDNF in the brain and is associated with several psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and depression. The mice, however, did not differ in their consumption of other fluids or exhibit differences in levels of anxiety, compulsive behaviors, depression, or social aggression. 

Significantly, by using gene delivery and pharmacology, researchers were able to reverse compulsive alcohol drinking in the mice. By increasing levels of BDNF in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in compulsive drug and alcohol seeking, the researchers noted that the mice returned to moderate levels of alcohol intake. In addition, by administering a pharmaceutical compound developed to mimic the action of BDNF, researchers were also able to put a stop to compulsive drinking behaviors. The NIAAA believes a similar compound may have potential as a therapeutic treatment for humans with binge drinking problems and alcohol use disorders.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.