Alcoholism & Genetics

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Alcoholism and Genetics: Is Your Parent Responsible for Your Drinking? Has heavy drinking affected your family? If it has, you are not alone. Almost half of all adults in the United States (43%) have been directly affected by alcoholism or have a parent, sibling, child or spouse affected by alcoholism. Over 76 million people in this country are directly or indirectly affected by alcoholism, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Alcoholism, a pervasive public health problem whose cost is estimated at more than $150 million annually, has a strong tendency to run in families. Although it is common throughout the general public, brothers or sisters of an alcoholic are at three to eight times greater risk of alcoholism than a person who has no family history of the condition. The identical twin of an alcoholic has about sixty percent chance of also becoming an alcoholic. However not everyone from a high-risk family develops alcoholism. Even in high-density alcoholic families, not all children come out to be alcoholics, said Henri Begleiter, thirty to forty percent of these kids will end up developing the disease (qtd. in Okie 3). It is important we do genetic research on alcohol and genetics for three reasons. First, it leads to identification of people at risk, and could help inform people so they could act to avoid developing alcohol related problems. Secondly, it may help us to understand the environmental factors that play a part in developing alcoholism. Third, it may lead to new understanding and treatment that can help alcoholics to relieve their problems. There is no definite cause of alcoholism; however, several factors may play a role in its development. The first is environment, and the second inherited factors. Researchers have found that environment does play an important role in the situation if the person does develop alcoholism or not. Some social factors include availability of alcohol, social acceptance of the use of alcohol, peer pressure, and stressful lifestyles. There are three main mechanisms by which persons may develop alcoholism. Genetic- biological mechanisms, alcohol-specific environmental mechanisms, and general environmental mechanisms. Genetic-biological mechanisms is when the child of the alcoholic develops alcoholism by the means that the genes were passed down through the family. Alcohol-specific environmental mechanisms is when the offspring learn to drink by watching and learning from their parents drinking throughout their life. Many times in which they think drinking is okay and will solve their problems. Finally, general environmental mechanisms is when the offspring learns to drink from outside of the family circle. They learn from outside sources such as their peer group or other family members (Velleman and Orford 56). What does the average person think? The researchers from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey, conducted telephone interviews with nearly one thousand US adults to reveal the answer to this question: We asked people...to choose which factors they felt were important in contributing to alcoholism said Dr. Paul Manowitz of The American Society of Human Genetics. We asked them to consider four factors, including the person s parents drinking habits when he or she was growing up, a currently unhappy home life, a person s biological makeup or genetics, and a bad work or job situation. Nearly 77 percent of the respondents state that genetics has a lot or some effect on the likelihood that someone will become an alcoholic (qtd. in Mulvihill, par. 5). Dr. Jeffery Long of the National Institutes of Health said, No single factor, whether it s genetics or environment, is sufficient to cause alcoholism. So we re looking for things that shift the balance. There is a growing supply of scientific evidence that alcoholism has a genetic component, but the actual gene that may cause it has yet to be positively identified. Little is known about the genes and factors determining what does get passed down and what does not, but what is known that in some ways genes are passed down through families. Alcoholism is multi-gene, it is not due to a mutation in a single-gene, said Dr. Enoch Gordis, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (qtd. in Marcotty 3). Scientists have identified markers within DNA related to alcoholism. The next step would be to locate the specific, exact genes that are related to the disease. Still being studied is a marker referred to as the dopamine D2 receptor, which Dr. Blum and his co-workers found to be present more often in alcoholics than in non-alcoholics (Genetics of Alcoholism 4). Two major ways of investigating heredity in alcoholism are the study of twins and adoptees. Both identical twins and fraternal twins are studied. If there is a genetic component in the risk for alcoholism, identical twins, who have identical genes, would be expected to display similar histories of developing alcoholism or not developing alcoholism. However, fraternal twins, who are genetically different, would be more likely to differ in their experiences in experiencing alcoholism. Among the difficulties in studying twins is the environment they are in. Usually identical twins are more likely to have the same environment compared to fraternal twins. Adoptees, on the other hand, are harder to follow. What is not known in many cases are information about the adopted child s birth parent or parents. His or her biological parent might have been an alcoholic or had alcohol related problems, and the researchers wouldn t even know. If both parents were alcoholics and the child was raised in an environment with no drinking, and the child becomes an alcoholic, that should prove that hereditary factor has a major effect in genetic alcoholics. Another study researchers conducted dealt with animals. Studies of laboratory animal subjects indicate that genetic factors play a major role in the development of alcoholism. The most common animals used in these studies are fruit flies and mice. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco used fruit flies in a study to find the genetic causes of alcoholism at the Wall Street Journal reported (Alcoholism: Is It Inherited? 2). The fruit flies behave in the same ways humans do when drunk, according to scientists, which makes it easier to study fruit flies compared to humans. In another study, scientists studied and bred two types of mice: those who were genetically sensitive to alcohol and those who were not sensitive. The two showed a considerable difference when exposed to the same exact amounts of alcohol. The sensitive mice showed lost their inhabitations quickly and passed out quickly, and the non- sensitive mice continued on with their inhabitations and tolerated the alcohol for longer periods of time. Using these animals

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