Scientists Discover Gene That Links Alcoholism to Heredity

By Paul Gaita 09/10/14

Researchers may have found a genetic way to decrease the amount of alcohol consumption.

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A new study has uncovered a key gene that strongly influences the development of alcohol dependence and alcoholism, which may prove significant in learning how the disease can occur in families.

Scientists at the Scripps Research Center conducted experiments on mice, which revealed a gene called Nf1, or neurofibromatosis type 1. The gene regulates the production of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutryic acid, or GABA, which aids the central nervous system in decreasing anxiety and promoting feelings of relaxation. Previous research has shown that GABA plays a significant role in differentiating individuals who can drink without becoming dependent and those who cannot.

Two groups of test animals were utilized in the study, one with Nf1 genes and another with Nf1 genes that had been partially deleted through genetic modifications. Alcohol was then administered on several occasions to both test groups. Scientists discovered that the mice with intact Nf1 genes consumed more alcohol on subsequent offerings, while those with genetic modifications did not.

The researchers next analyzed the test groups for GABA levels, and again found that those with Nf1 produced more of the neurotransmitter, while those without the gene showed no increase. Finally, the researchers looked at genetic data from 9,000 human test subjects and found that those individuals with Nf1 were more susceptible to alcohol dependency and alcoholism.

Scientists have known for years that genes play an important role in dependency. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a person’s genetic makeup is approximately 50% responsible for the propensity for alcohol addiction. But which genes were specifically involved remained unclear until the publication of the Scripps Research Center’s study.

With this information, researchers are hoping that the study will lead to future testing that will allow families to determine if their children are more at risk for alcohol issues and then make appropriate early intervention.

“A better understanding of the molecular processes involved in the transition to alcohol dependence will foster novel strategies for prevention and therapy,” said Pietro Paolo Sanna an associate professor at the Scripps Research Center and a corresponding author on the study.

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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.