Jessica has tried time and again to limit her drinking. “I’ll just have one glass of wine tonight!” she tells herself, night after night. But one leads to two leads to a whole bottle, followed by shots at a bar, and she wakes up the next day hungover, regretful and ashamed.
Scientists are still seeking answers for why some people can consume alcohol in a casual, moderate way, while others occasionally drink to excess, and others, like Jessica, tend to drink compulsively. A new study indicates that there may be genetic factors that drive some people to drink excessively, while others can easily stop after a glass or two.
Do We Have Genetic Proof?
In a study earlier this year at the University of California, San Francisco, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, researchers identified a gene variant that reduces a protein in mice brains, leading them to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, despite uncomfortable or painful consequences. Researchers found that mice with this gene variant consumed more alcohol, even when it was spiked with quinine, which has a strong, bitter taste.
The genetic mutation seemed to have an effect on alcohol consumption specifically, and did not impact how the mice consumed other fluids, or their levels of anxiety or other compulsive behaviors.
The human form of this genetic variant has been linked to various psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and depression. Experts believe this research could be used to identify a predisposition towards problem drinking in young people, and aid in prevention and treatment.
“Genetic factors play a role in determining who develops alcohol problems,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “By understanding the genetic underpinnings of alcohol use disorder, we will be better able to develop targeted treatment and prevention strategies.”
The Cause of Compulsive Drug and Alcohol Use?
In the study, researchers were able to return the mice to moderate drinking by increasing levels of a protein in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that drives compulsive drug and alcohol use.
Also, by administering a pharmaceutical drug, researchers were able to stop compulsive drinking behaviors in the mice. Both the compound and the genetic alteration could have a major impact on drug and alcohol treatment and prevention in humans, say researchers.
There are currently an estimated 16.6 million adults in the US with some form of alcohol use disorder. This is considered a pattern of drinking that may interfere with school, work or family responsibilities, put the drinker in dangerous situations, like drunk driving and/or continue despite negative consequences.
Compulsive drinking often involves binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row for men, and four or more in a row for women. According to the CDC, potential dangers of binge drinking include car accidents, other accidental injuries, and increased risk of violence. And in the longer term, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, inflammation of the stomach pancreas, brain or spinal cord, higher risk of STD’s, and even death.
Additional Reading: 3 Devastatingly Dangerous Alcohol-Drug Combos
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