Scientists Discover Gene Network Tied to Alcoholism
Scientists at the University of Texas might have cracked the genetic code on alcohol dependence, a critical step toward developing better-targeted screenings and treatments for alcoholics.
Comparisons of brain tissue from alcoholics and non-alcoholics led researchers to discover a particular genetic footprint left by those who’d consumed the most alcohol. Although it’s long been determined that genetics contribute to alcohol dependence, the breakthrough here was locating the set of genes linked to it. The genes were found to be working together as a “network” to determine alcohol dependence, the researchers concluded. Their findings, which they say hold promise for helping physicians screen for and treat alcoholism, were published in the December issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
“This provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the gene sets that drive alcohol dependence,” said R. Adron Harris, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research. “We now have a much clearer picture of where specific traits related to alcohol dependence overlap with specific expressions in genetic code.”
The Human Genome Project launched a new frontier of genetics study of diseases and medical advances. It’s hard to believe that this game-changing effort is only about a decade old. The Human Genome Project established the essential sequence of the 3 billion “building blocks” that comprise the human genome and determined the roughly 25,000 genes in this sequence, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Over the years, these genetic pioneers have sought to unlock clues that may help provide medical and psychiatric professionals with better approaches to care and treatment. They’ve learned that genes play a role in an array of conditions, including alcoholism and addiction but that the link was far more complex than the mere existence of this or that gene. The University of Texas researchers said their results mark the first instance where scientists used “revolutionary bioinformatics technology of RNA sequencing” to pinpoint the exact set of genes that when expressed together, are intensely correlated with alcohol dependence,” the university’s college of natural science announced.
“We hope our model can serve as a type of Wikipedia of alcohol dependence, helping to break down the complexities of alcohol dependence and becoming a reference for future research into drug therapies,” said Sean Farris, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Waggoner Center.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in its latest report, says that one in three American adults is an excessive drinker, often a binge drinker. Binge drinking is defined for women as four or more drinks on one occasion or eight or more drinks a week, and for men as five or more drinks on a single occasion or 15 or more drinks in one week. By contrast, only one in 30 adults is alcohol dependent, a chronic medical condition characterized by current or past excessive drinking, an inability to stop drinking and alcohol cravings, said Dr. Robert Brewer, the CDC’s alcohol program lead and a report author.
Learning how our genetic coding contributes to addiction is a pressing quest. The FDA has approved only three medications for treating the cravings for alcohol, one of the biggest factors in relapse, and those drugs are no magic fix, doctors say. What’s more, they are surprisingly underprescribed. Given that one person in the world dies every 10 seconds from alcohol consumption, the push continues to identify the genetic aspect of addiction. Applications of the latest University of Texas finding may lead to more accurate screening of risk factors or perhaps prevent heavy drinking altogether.
By Nancy Wride
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