Risk Takers at Risk: Impulsivity and Addiction

By Dirk Hanson 04/13/11

People who act impulsively under stress are more likely to be problem drinkers, new genetic research shows.

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I don't know, I just felt like it.
Photo via filmbabblehtml

The brooding, antisocial loner, the one with impulse control problems, a penchant for risk-taking, and a cigarette dangling from his or her lip, is a recognizable archetype. From Marlon Brando to Lisbeth Salander, these flawed heroes are perhaps the ones with restless brain chemicals; the ones who never felt good and never knew why (“What are you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?”). So-called “psychopathic traits” like impulsivity and risk taking are linked to addiction, but now scientists at the University of Michigan’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute believe they have isolated the genetic variant that contributes to the risk of alcoholism by influencing this impulsive behavior. The study of 173 families found that family members with certain versions of a gene called GABRA2 tended to act impulsively when under stress, and were more likely to be abusive drinkers. The gene acts on a part of the brain called the insula. Earlier work has shown that cigarette smokers who suffer damage to the insula mysteriously lose their desire to smoke. The genetic associations were stronger in women, which doesn’t surprise alcohol researchers. Women have a greater tendency than men to drink heavily when stressed or anxious, research shows.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]