Is alcoholism hereditary or learned over time? The debate has gone on for decades. Originally, it was thought that alcoholism was a choice. But in recent years, the scientific evidence proving otherwise has continued to grow. A number of studies have been done and experts are starting to agree that genetics do, in fact, play a role in alcoholism.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry conducted a study around this debate. What they found is that children of alcoholic families are four times more likely to grow up to become alcoholics themselves. Is this because of genetics? It could be. Maybe it’s because their environment contains an alcoholic parent.
Alcoholism and Genetics
Evidence is starting to surface that there is, at least, a component of alcoholism that is genetic.
Mapping the human genome (the sequence of our DNA) has done amazing things for modern scientific discovery. Disorders such as down syndrome, autism, and even alcoholism can be studied on an chromosomal level.
One such discovery was made in 1990. Scientists found a link between the A1 allele and DRD2 gene and alcoholism. These were the first DNA components of their kind that demonstrated a link to alcoholism.
A second study concerning alcoholism was conducted in Sweden. Sts of twins, who had been separated during adoption, were studied independently. It was discovered that the twins exposed to drinking through their foster parents exhibited slightly higher instances of alcoholism. But, in that same study, individuals with biological parents that were alcoholics had drastically higher occurrences of alcoholism. It didn’t matter whether alcoholism was present in their foster home or not.
Since these two studies were done, more studies on the link between alcohol and genetics have followed. Unfortunately, results of these studies have been inconclusive. Particular genes have been isolated that can be associated with the behaviors that accompany alcoholism and dependence. Some of the genes can be linked directly to alcoholism and some are only loosely associated.
Studying The Effects of Alcohol
Although the direct connection between alcohol and genetics is still largely undecided, significant improvements have been made in the ways we can study the effects of alcohol.
Scientists at UC – San Francisco tested the effects of alcohol on fruit flies. They discovered that drunk fruit flies behaved the same as drunk humans. They also concluded that the same bodily systems control the resistance to alcohol in both fruit flies and humans.
A similar study was done on mice. Two strains of mice were bred: one sensitive to alcohol and one insensitive to alcohol. The sensitive strain of mice lost their inhibitions more quickly and passed out sooner. The insensitive strain of mice were able to tolerate alcohol for longer, losing less inhibitions and taking longer to pass out.
Studying how alcohol works on these animals may help us to answer the question of alcoholism being hereditary.
Nature and Nurture
Currently, it’s believed that alcoholism is both hereditary and environmental in nature. Factors from both categories can play a role in the development of alcoholism. Although both types of factors contribute, certain experts believe that the genetic factors might be stronger.
Discovering the genes associated with alcoholism would be a great stride for fighting addiction. But, these genes are analyzed to determine someone’s risk of becoming an alcoholic. If a particular gene is present, it doesn’t mean a person is destined to abuse alcohol. The goal is to attempt to identify children and teens who may be at risk for the disease, and stop it before it starts.
Family members of alcoholics should never assume that they are going to become alcoholics themselves. They just need to keep in mind that they are more at risk for it. Growing up in a family where alcoholism is present makes your chances of developing a dependency higher.
In addition to the genetic factors involved with the disease, environmental factors play a role too. People, situations, and things we are exposed to as we grow up can increase the chances of alcoholism.
People who start drinking early are more likely to battle alcoholism. It’s been shown that people who wait until the legal drinking age to drink alcohol are less likely to become alcoholics, and are less likely to deal with alcohol dependence.
Children who were brought up in an abusive home also are more likely to turn to alcohol in later years. This can be verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. The stress associated with any of these situations puts these children at higher risk than those raised in a stable home environment.
Conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, anxiety, and schizophrenia also present a higher risk for alcohol abuse. If people are experiencing symptoms of these disorders like mood swings, mania, or split personalities, they may use alcohol as a way to try and heal themselves.
Is Alcoholism Hereditary
Heritage and alcoholism are closely linked. But, a clear connection between the two can’t be made at this point. The bright side, though, is that great strides have been made in how we study this disease. We are light years ahead of where we were just a short time ago, and studying the disease on a genetic level will only speed up the process.
In fact, scientists have already been able to pinpoint characteristics that demonstrate an increased risk for alcoholism. One of these is a smaller amygdala in the brain.
Some studies have shown that people with a family history of alcoholism possess a smaller than average amygdala in their brain. This part of the brain affects the emotions associated with cravings. Having a smaller amygdala may mean it’s harder for someone to fight those cravings.
Abnormal serotonin levels may also signal an increased risk of alcoholism. Serotonin is one of the most important mood-regulating hormones in the human body. It also plays a large role in many addiction and substance abuse issues.
Serotonin is known as a neurotransmitter. It’s vital to the function of the brain, and can be linked to depression. Abnormal levels of serotonin in the brain could possibly be a signal that someone is at higher risk of alcoholism.
Is alcoholism hereditary? It’s hard to say. But, I think the one thing we can agree on is: continuing to study the disease with the same level of passion will get us an answer sooner rather than later.