Researchers discover a gene linked to alcohol dependence

March 31, 2015
alcoholism genes

For years, researchers have known there was a link between alcoholism and genetics. However, very little has been discovered regarding what specific genes cause some people to become dependent on alcohol and others not to be. Now, researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine may have uncovered a clue that could lead to better treatment methods.

The researchers noted there are very few effective methods and medications on the market that can aid alcohol dependency. They believe studying the molecular makeup of alcohol may indicate what leads to dependence in humans, and what causes that trait to be passed on. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“In 2012, 17 million Americans were dealing with an alcohol use disorder.”

Finding a gene linked to alcohol dependence

In their study, the researchers mainly focused on a protein complex called switching defective/sucrose non-fermenting, otherwise known as SWI/SNF. They experimented on roundworms, which have a similar genetic makeup to humans and carry this protein complex. The study authors gave the roundworms alcohol, and slowly examined their behavior as they got inebriated. The researchers studied the roundworms develop a tolerance to alcohol and watched which ones became dependent on the substance. They examined the genes of the worms that became reliant on alcohol, and found that they had specific variations of SWI/SNF. The researchers realized that humans may have these same variations, and discovered they were right. They found that the genes within this complex played a significant role in alcohol abuse and addiction.

The study authors realized that people develop other illnesses, such as Huntington’s Disease, due to a single mutated gene. However, in alcoholism people have a set of mutated genes that each slightly contribute to the disease. Yet the SWI/SNF complex is only one of many genes that may play a role in causing a person to become dependent on alcohol. So, there is still a lot more work to do.

If the same effects are seen in worms, then it allows us to form and test a functional hypothesis about what kinds of changes lead to increased dependence risk in humans.”

Looking forward

This discovery is a big step in the right direction. The researchers believe their findings can contribute toward finding the direct causes behind alcoholism and determining exactly what plays a role in dependency. They plan to continue their research to find out what other genes may be involved in this process.

“The identification of genes that are critical in the development of tolerance in model systems such as worms will lead to future progress in understanding human dependence on alcohol,” lead study author Brian Riley, Ph.D., said. “If the same effects are seen in worms, then it allows us to form and test a functional hypothesis about what kinds of changes lead to increased dependence risk in humans.”

Alcohol abuse and dependency is becoming a growing problem in the nation, with many people not seeking treatment for their disease. In 2012, about 17 million Americans 18 and older were dealing with an alcohol use disorder, with more men facing the disease than women. However, only 1.4 million people sought treatment for alcoholism at a recovery facility in 2012. Alcohol abuse and addiction can put people at a higher risk of injury and disease, with nearly 88,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes each year. That means alcoholism is the third leading preventable cause of death in the nation. Hopefully more research can lower this number.

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