Genetics of Alcoholism

DNA controls a lot about how each individual grows and develops. It can play a massive role in the development of health conditions, and there has been great scientific interest in how much of influence genetics have in alcohol use disorder.

Affecting millions of people around the world, alcoholism involves an individual’s physical dependence on alcohol, and their inability to stop drinking despite the negative effects it causes.

The condition largely depends upon the traits and behaviours of an individual, but do genetics determine whether alcoholism will develop or not?

Are there alcoholic genes?

Similarly to other conditions, alcoholism has a tendency to be hereditary. Various studies of families conclude that genetics play a substantial part in the probability of an individual developing alcohol use disorder [1].

The children of alcoholics tend to develop the condition, leading scientists to hypothesise as to whether there is an ‘alcoholic gene’ – a certain piece of DNA that causes the disorder to affect some people and not others.

After decades of research, no single ‘alcoholic gene’ has been identified. Instead, there are said to be around 50 genes that contribute to the development of the disorder, but the interaction and manifestation of these genes is a complex and confusing process.

Complex combinations

Rather than a single gene being responsible for alcoholism, many different genes combine in a number of ways to increase the chances of the condition developing.

While the role of genetics has been widely accepted, it is hard to identify what genes are responsible, as there is no single way that an individual’s genetic make-up will impact them.

No direct cause and effect relationship can be pinned down and treated, making the conclusions of research difficult to apply to real-life cases. Instead, conclusions about very specific aspects of the brain and body can be made.

For example, one component of alcoholism development is the amygdala, an area of the brain strongly associated with the cravings experienced by the disorder.

Those who inherit a smaller amygdala are more likely to develop alcoholism as they are more susceptible to succumb to the cravings brought on by drinking.

Alternatively, the condition can also be influenced by the chemical production an individual inherits, such as how much Serotonin they create. This hormone is strongly associated with mood regulation.

Irregular levels may cause an individual to be more susceptible to negative emotions, decreasing their ability to handle them and increasing their chances of turning to alcohol to cope.

As these examples highlight, there are many ways in which certain genes can influence the development of alcoholism, and there is no way to specifically determine how genes will have their impact.

Mental health genes

It is also important to consider the role that inherited mental health conditions play.

Genetics have great influence in the development of disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, and such conditions are often the reason why individuals develop a dependence on alcohol.

The feelings and thoughts generated by these conditions can be difficult to deal with, often leading individuals to seek the sedative effect of alcohol. Those who inherit genes which trigger these conditions, therefore, are more likely to seek the comfort of alcohol.

The importance of the environment

While there is a clear role played by genetics when it comes to alcoholism, the impact of an individual’s environment cannot be understated.

Part of why genes are so complex is because their presence alone does not necessarily determine their influence. Whether a gene has any effect also depends on whether it is triggered or activated within an individual’s life.

Furthermore, an individual’s life may cause them to develop alcoholism without any of the contributing genes being present. The circumstances an individual has to live through can have a tremendous effect, interacting with and sometimes overpowering the power of genetics.

1. Socialisation

How an individual is raised to perceive alcohol can have a huge influence on how they interact with it.

If a child is brought up to consider it as a healthy thing to use and sees parents or family members drinking excessively, then they will see no problem in doing the same.

The same can also be said for how an individual is taught to handle difficult situations. If they are raised to avoid difficult emotions, the genes within them that encourage alcohol use will have more influence.

2. Social life

Who an individual spends time with, as well as where they spend that time, can also have a strong effect on their behaviour.

If an individual is surrounded by friends or colleagues who drink a lot, they are more likely to feel pressure to do the same. Also, if a lot of time is spent in places where alcohol is commonplace, such as a pub, then consumption can become excessive.

The genes which influence an individual’s susceptibility to drinking or their tolerance to it, for example, cannot be triggered if an individual does not spend any time in a place where alcohol is consumed.

3. Trauma

Pain, both physical and emotional, can play a large part in the manifestation of alcohol dependence.

If an individual experiences abuse as a child or a horrible accident as an adult, they are more likely to seek alcohol as a means of numbing the difficult memories and emotions.

An abused person who has certain genes which impact their response to stress might be pushed into a strong addiction.

It is common for ex-military personnel to develop a dependency on alcohol in order to keep them from dwelling on memories or flashbacks from their time in conflict [2].

Do you need to be concerned?

The connection between alcoholism and genetics has been discussed for many years. While not very well understood, there is definitely a degree to which the condition is hereditary.

However, this does not mean that the presence of alcoholism-related genes means an individual is predisposed to become an alcoholic. Biology can increase the risk, but anyone can put measures in place to ensure that addiction does not occur.

If a member of your family is suffering from alcohol use disorder and you are concerned that you are at risk of developing the condition as well, here are a few things you can do to lessen the chances:

  • Maintain healthy relationships – alcoholism strikes when individuals are socially isolated, so keep in touch with close friends and continue speaking with them about your thoughts and feelings
  • Speak about mental health – if you are struggling, reduce the potential for alcohol abuse to manifest why speaking to a friend or counsellor about difficult emotions
  • Recognise signs of addiction – being aware of changes in your own behaviour can prevent alcoholism before it becomes too serious

Of course, these steps are much easier said than done. If you are concerned about your relationship with alcohol, or the potential for a harmful relationship to develop, speak to your GP or an alcohol organisation.