Recent research is bringing scientists closer to understanding what specific genes are responsible for alcohol addiction. Their goal is to make it possible for people to easily find out if they possess the genes that put them at risk for alcohol addiction.
For some time now, scientists have known that genetic mutations are what cause most cases of alcoholism, but they weren't sure which single gene played a part in it. They also believe a combination of several genes and their complexes interact to cause alcoholism. An individual's environment and DNA also play a big role in whether they develop an alcohol problem.
The latest study done at Virginia Commonwealth University used roundworms to uncover a genetic variation that has a profound influence on alcohol tolerance levels. Researchers believe this genetic variation is what could give them the answers they've been looking for when it comes to the factors that put people at a higher risk for alcoholism.
Researchers gave the roundworms ethanol and then observed how their movements were affected. They noticed that the speed of their crawl and the frequency of their movements slowed and flattened as the worms became intoxicated. The rate of this speed reduction varied from worm to worm depending on their genetic coding for a protein complex that is found in all animals. It seems that the tolerance for alcohol comes from within these genes.
Researchers agree that alcohol tolerance plays a part in a person's risk of developing alcoholism. Having a low tolerance will protect a person from developing a problem, but it's still not a surefire guard against alcoholism. Exposure to alcohol is another big factor when it comes to alcoholism and it's quite possible for a person to build up a chemical tolerance to alcohol that allows them to drink more.
Scientist studying alcoholism and addiction do agree that DNA is the culprit behind almost half of the country's cases of alcoholism. The disease has been proven to run in families, with a father slightly more likely to pass on his alcoholism than a mother. Environment plays a big role as well, and scientists believe that it's a combination of genetics and environmental factors that lead to most cases of alcoholism.
The protein complex responsible for the changes in movement with the worms in the Virginia study are now believed to be the main influence on alcohol tolerance, although researchers aren't quite clear on how that influence occurs. They do know that the proteins change how DNA is wrapped around its scaffold, which then influences how other genes are activated.
Researchers believes one of the genes affected by the proteins is responsible for alcohol tolerance and is turned on or off by the protein complex. These DNA wrapping proteins are found in all animals, ranging from worms to humans.
The researchers involved in the Virginia study say their findings with the protein complexes of worms translate to humans. Other scientists studying alcoholism disagree, saying that human DNA is much more complicated. They believe alcoholism's origins is more complex than just genetics and that environmental factors must be taken into consideration.
These scientists want more research to be done on the relationship between genes and environmental factors to get a better picture of alcoholism. Because a worm's environment and a human's environment are so drastically different, the Virginia study does not accomplish that.
Scientists on both sides of the argument do agree that research is getting closer to finding answers about the genetics of alcoholism. The results could help patients better understand what risk they carry and also enable pharmaceutical companies develop better medications for treating alcohol addiction.