If you’ve ever heard a close relative say, “Alcoholism runs in the family,” you may want to heed the warning. In recent decades, researchers have been able to demonstrate that our genes, not our will power, account for a greater than 50 percent predisposition to addiction.
It isn’t that some of us are hard wired for addiction specifically. Instead, for some, this highly evolved dopamine reward system designed to aid in our survival is more sensitive to the rewards it perceives from consumption of alcohol, leaving those individuals far more vulnerable to the addictive nature of the drug. In fact, a child of at least one parent who is addicted to alcohol faces eight times the risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.
Understanding the role of genetics in alcohol addiction not only helps us better understand the disease, but can also promote more successful avenues for treatment and prevention.
How We Know Alcoholism Is Genetic
In the 1960s, Harvard University began recruiting pairs of identical and fraternal twins as part of a research project to establish genetic determinants favoring addictive behaviors. Nearly 7,000 people were recruited making up 1,874 sets of identical twins and a corresponding group of 1,498 sets of fraternal twins.
Identical twins come from a single fertilized egg, making them exactly the same in terms of genetics. Fraternal twins come from two fertilized eggs, representing two genetically diverse individuals.
Researchers sought to determine whether a higher rate of co-occurring addictive behaviors existed in the identical twin group, versus the control group, thereby proving the significant role genes play in addiction.
Of the 6,744 individuals participating in the study, approximately 10 percent demonstrated an addiction to drugs or alcohol, with the identical twin groups showing double the likelihood of involvement of both twins versus the control group. This was a significant number and served as the foundation for other studies examining genetic predisposition to addiction.
Today, researchers are seeking out specific genes that play key roles in addictive behaviors. Several genes have been isolated that may appear individually or altogether in many variations, leading some to greater vulnerability to specific substances than others.
The “Alcoholism Gene”
Alcoholism is linked to the CYP2E1 variant of a gene, known today as the “alcoholism gene,” that makes a person more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, though this is not the only genetic variant related to alcohol addiction. Scientists have been able to isolate several genes that play a role in alcoholism by comparing data sets collected by research groups who studied the genetics of individuals suffering from alcoholism and compared these results with those who are not addicted to alcohol. These groups then merged their data and found a correlation between the illness and nearly 40 gene variations like CYP2E1.
While genetics play a critical role in addictive behaviors, other risk factors like mental disorders are also passed down, increasing the likelihood of an individual becoming addicted to alcohol.
What Role Do Genes Play In Alcohol Addiction
People with a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism don’t have faulty wiring. In fact, the genes that make them more sensitive to alcohol evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as a protective mechanism. Within our brains is the nucleus accumbens, also known as the reward or “pleasure center” of the brain. This part of our brain evolved to help us recognize food that was good for our survival in times of scarcity. It makes us crave water, sex, carbohydrates, proteins, and fat toward perpetuation of our species.
Before the modern era, when starvation was a real threat to our survival, our brains were working to develop ways of locating food more efficiently. When someone 10,000 years ago, located food to eat, the reward centers of the brain flooded the circuitry with the neurotransmitter dopamine. You know that satiated feeling you get when you finish your favorite meal? That’s part of the dopamine response. (It’s also the neurotransmitter most often associated with addiction and addictive behaviors.) We crave the dopamine response and seek it out as part of our built-in survival mechanism.
Another part of this survival mechanism involves our sensory perception. During the time our primitive friend is enjoying the food source that has initiated the dopamine response, his brain is taking a snapshot of the environment, down to minute details of the surroundings where this food source was located, increasing the likelihood it will locate similar food sources again later.
Unfortunately, that same mechanism designed to save us is also a huge component in addiction and addiction related behaviors. In this day and age where we are flooded with an abundance of not only food, but also substances like alcohol that trigger the same dopamine response, those with greater sensitivity to alcohol will experience a disproportionate reaction to the drug.
When they drink, their reward system, in an attempt to keep them alive, is betraying its noble task. The person is not only at high risk of developing physical dependency on alcohol, but they are also developing drug triggers, which will make it harder to stop drinking, once they’ve started. These triggers are based on the dopamine response and the body’s heightened awareness of its surroundings when it receives this reward signal. So, someone who drinks often in a specific location or around certain people, when introduced to that location or those people, will crave alcohol, whether they intended to drink or not.
Other Risk Factors For Alcohol Addiction
As mentioned earlier, other risk factors include genetic variations underlying mental disorders that can lead to increased risk of alcohol addiction. These genes run in families and may yield an increase in use of alcohol, even when other alcohol-specific genes are not present.
Other risk factors for alcoholism include family dynamics. A person’s exposure to alcohol abuse as a child, a history of physical or sexual abuse, and cultural or social support for drinking may all increase the likelihood of that person developing an addiction to alcohol.
Get Help For Alcohol Addiction
If you or someone you love is coping with an addiction to alcohol, AlcoholTreatment.net offers online resources as well as support to connect you with treatment options available in your area. Despite a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, a comprehensive treatment plan can help you overcome these challenges and get your back on track for a rewarding life in recovery. Contact AlcoholTreatment.net today and begin a new journey free from addiction to alcohol.