It is commonly held in modern science that a person’s genetics influence the risk of psychiatric disorders. But while genetic factors underlying addiction—i.e., alcohol and substance abuse disorder—clearly play an important role in the disease’s development, it can be hard figuring out the specifics of those factors in any given individual’s case (e.g., how does this or that part of a person’s family history affect them regarding risk of addiction, if at all?).
A recent study by an international team of researchers, led by Dr. Hang Zhou of Yale’s School of Medicine, found 29 genetic influences on problematic alcohol use, linking some of them to other individual traits, like mental health conditions. According to Dr. Mark Gold, a distinguished addictions researcher, these findings “helped the team measure shared genetic vulnerabilities for different issues, an important step for identifying individual risks.”
Using genetic information stored in a number of separate databases on nearly half a million people, the research team compared this information with data on alcohol use and other lifestyle factors to measure which genetic factors were associated with “problematic alcohol use” (acknowledged to be a broad-sweeping term to include alcohol use disorder, physiological dependence and/or consequential drinking).
Besides 10 genetic risk factors that had already been identified, their research identified 19 new ones. In addition, they found schizophrenia is correlated with problematic alcohol use, as well as other mood disorders and substance use disorders. It should be noted education level and cognitive performance were shown to have protective effects on liability to alcohol use disorder.
As a result of this research, Zhou and his team also found connections between problematic alcohol use and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression (which is further confirmation of findings from other research studies).
What is important about this study is not just that prior known genetic risk factors for alcohol use disorder are confirmed, but that many new ones are shown to have a significant influence. One of the study’s authors, Yale’s Joel Gelernter, said, “The new data triple the number of known genetic risk loci associated with problematic alcohol use.” These findings will help future researchers understand with greater clarity the characteristics underlying a specific individual’s potential vulnerabilities regarding alcohol use.
Given alcohol use disorder is a complex disease, which can vary dramatically in its manifestation over time and in different settings, circumstances and cultures, this study, said Dr. Gold, “should help researchers and practitioners more effectively gauge individual risk for AUD and problem drinking. Over time, they could also help us develop targeted treatments—treatments tailored for individuals and for specific genetic risk factors they may have.”
While the team acknowledged the limitations of their research and the need for further, more inclusive study (especially seeking out more data from African-American and non-European populations), it would be unwise to ignore that genetic factors—along with social, economic, political and cultural factors—play a significant role in influencing the risk of problem drinking, substance abuse and mental health issues, all of which impact the quality of any person’s life.
Being aware of the potential problems and risk factors—including our genetic influences—regarding alcohol and substance use can help each of us make wiser decisions and choices, resulting in better, healthier and more desirable outcomes.