Children of alcoholic parents are four times as likely to develop drinking problems as the general population. Sons of alcoholic fathers face up to nine times the usual risk. Even babies of alcoholics adopted into non-drinking homes have nearly the same risk of alcoholism as they would if they'd stayed with their biological parents, studies have shown.
But untangling just which genes pass along the predisposition for problem drinking is devilishly difficult—largely because alcoholism itself is so complex. Genes that affect how fast the liver metabolizes alcohol and how the brain reacts to stress, reward and pleasure have all been implicated, as have genes for anxiety and depression. Some overlap with genes for nicotine, cocaine and other addictions.
About one in 10 Americans fit the criteria for alcohol dependence—mainly the inability to cut down—at some point in their lives. Environmental influences and social pressures also play complicated roles.
That idea is already showing promise in one area: identifying drugs that can help treat alcoholics based on their individual DNA profile. Most of the drugs currently on the market aim to cut alcohol cravings but don't work on everyone and compliance is a problem. That could change, experts say, if drugs could be targeted to patients with specific types of alcoholism.
Who Is an Alcoholic?
If you've done any three of these seven, you meet the criteria for alcohol-dependent:
- Drunk more or longer than you intended
- Been unable to stop or cut down
- Needed more alcohol to get the same effect
- Had withdrawal symptoms without it
- Spent an increasing amount of time drinking or recovering
- Neglected other activities due to drinking
- Continued to drink despite negative consequences
- About 5% of Americans currently meet the criteria, and more than 10% do at some time in their lives, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Source: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
Source: The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2011