The binge-drinking gene: Scientists identify key risk factor in alcohol abuse

 

Scientists could soon be able to predict whether teenage boys are likely to become heavy drinkers by looking at whether they carry a particular variant of a gene linked to thrill-seeking behaviour, a study suggests.

The researchers said the findings will help them to develop better ways of identifying children who are at risk of misusing alcohol so that they can be encouraged to avoid binge drinking in later life.

A study involving hundreds of teenagers found that a gene called RASGRF-2 plays an important role in predisposing some individuals to heavy or frequent drinking. The same gene is also known to be involved with “reward anticipation” in the brain.

Scientists believe that the research will lead to a greater understanding of how alcohol affects people in different ways depending on their genetic makeup, explaining why some people are more prone to the effects of heavy drinking and alcohol abuse.

“People seek out situations which fulfil their sense of reward and make them happy, so if your brain is wired to find alcohol rewarding, you will seek it out,” said Professor Gunter Schumann of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

“We now understand the chain of action – how our genes shape this function in our brains and how that, in turn, leads to human behaviour,” said Professor Schumann, a lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous research on laboratory mice has shown that the RASGRF-2 gene influences whether animals seek out alcohol, and that this behaviour is tied in with the way the brain anticipates a sense of reward, which is controlled by the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter released between nerve cells.

The latest study investigated DNA variations of the RASGRF-2 gene in 663 boys aged 14 who underwent brain scans at various medical centres around Britain and the rest of Europe to monitor the part of the brain known to be involved in anticipating a sense of reward.

“We found that the RASGRF-2 gene plays a crucial role in controlling how alcohol stimulates the brain to release dopamine, and hence trigger the feeling of reward,” Professor Schumann said.

“So, if people have a genetic variation of the RASGRF-2 gene, alcohol gives them a stronger sense of reward, making them more likely to be heavy drinkers,” he said.

The research, which is part of a pan-European study known as the Imagen Consortium, followed the 14-year-old boys until they reached the age of 16, when they had begun to drink on a regular basis.

Those 16-year-olds with the variation of the RASGRF-2 gene drank more frequently than their contemporaries who did not have the gene variation. In other words, the gene variation can be used to predict whether an individual is likely to become a heavy drinker.

“Identifying risk factors for early alcohol abuse is important in designing prevention and treatment interventions for alcohol addiction,” Professor Schumann said.

Brain scans carried out on the boys revealed that those who were carrying the gene variation were more likely to show increased activity in the ventral striatum area of the brain, which is closely associated with the release of dopamine and the sense of anticipating a reward.

Patricia Conrod of the University of Montreal said that the findings show how a person’s genetic makeup can be connected to brain activity and the sort of thrill-seeking behaviour that can lead to drug or alcohol addiction.

“There are a multitude of genes that are contributing to addiction and in this study we’ve found one that appears to be involved in responding to the sense of anticipation of a reward,” Dr Conrod said.

“Drinking behaviour is highly genetically determined and this is one factor that is significantly related to drinking behaviour which is associated with reward. It is about the anticipating of a reward, rather than the receiving of a reward that’s important here,” she said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Relationship Assistant / Business Support

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you willing to give fantastic Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Assistant Document Controller

£11000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Greenwich based firm of Archite...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum