Understanding the genetics of alcoholism: 29 gene variants identified

Written by Katie Gordon

A genome-wide analysis has identified 29 genetic variants, 19 of which are novel, associated with problematic alcohol consumption.

Problematic alcohol use is a major contributor to a variety of serious medical problems, making it one of the leading causes of global death and disability. A genetic factor to alcoholism has been theorized and observed for a while but never fully understood.

Now, an international team of researchers, from a variety of institutions in the USA, UK and Denmark, has identified 29 genetic variants associated with problematic alcohol consumption in a genome-wide analysis of over 435,000 participants. Of these 29 genetic risk factors, 19 were novel.

“The new data triple the number of known genetic risk loci associated with problematic alcohol use,” remarked senior author Joel Gelernter (Yale University School of Medicine, CT, USA).

Published recently in Nature Neuroscience, the genome-wide analysis involved investigating shared genetic variants among individuals of European ancestry, who met the criteria for problematic drinking from four separate biobanks and datasets.

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As well as uncovering the 29 genetic variants associated with alcoholism, further analysis of the biobank data allowed the researchers to confirm genetic correlations between problematic alcohol consumption and psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Genetic heritability of problematic alcohol use was discovered to be enriched in the brain and conserved in regulatory regions of the genome. Mendelian randomization provided evidence for a causal effect between problematic alcohol consumption, substance abuse, psychiatric status, cognitive performance and risk-taking behavior.

The study helped to shine a light on the genetic risk factors associated with alcoholism as well as confirming a genetic association between problematic alcohol use and a variety of other traits. In addition to aiding the treatment of those already suffering from alcoholism, the researchers hope that their findings could help prevent the development in genetically high-risk individuals.

“With these results, we are also in a better position to evaluate individual-level risk for problematic alcohol use,” Gelernter concluded.