Research is finding that heavy drinking can actually edit your genes and lead to a substance abuse disorder—although this may leave some wondering why people who start out as heavy drinkers and become alcoholics is newsworthy.
However, the implications for further research that could provide essential information for treating those with alcohol use disorder (AUD)—as well as identifying those at risk for AUD and intervening appropriately—are highly promising.
According to the World Health Organization, 3 million people die each year due to the abuse of alcohol, which accounts for 5.3 percent of all deaths worldwide.
Although AUD is characterized by risky and impulsive behavior that can lead to disease, injury or death, these negative outcomes are also common amongst binge- and heavy social drinkers. Now, however, scientists are discovering that binge- and heavy social drinkers are putting themselves in danger genetically—triggering long-term genetic change that increases alcohol cravings even more—thus upping their risk for developing AUD.
According to Dipak K. Sarkar, senior author of a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, "This [research] may help explain why alcoholism is such a powerful addiction, and may one day contribute to new ways to treat alcoholism or help prevent at-risk people from becoming addicted."
Researchers at Rutgers University and Yale University School of Medicine concentrated on two genes correlated with the control of drinking: POMC, which regulates the stress-response system, and PER2, which influences the body's biological clock.
They compared groups of moderate-, binge- and heavy social drinkers and discovered that both genes had changed through methylation, an alcohol-influenced gene modification that is known more broadly as an epigenetic change. In methylation, a molecule is added to a gene and the gene expression is altered, though the genetic code is not.
Epigenetic changes can be the result of a variety of environmental factors, including alcohol, and in this case, changes increased with greater alcohol consumption. It's notable, however, that these genes could have been inherited from parents or had been suppressed by stress.
Implications for Further Research
Researchers admitted that the small size of the study was a weakness and that the research didn't demonstrate clear cause and effect. A larger study might reveal any differences that may exist. In addition, the results were heavily skewed towards men.
However, blood samples attested to a tendency for POMC and PER2 genes to methylate in binge- and heavy social drinkers. Furthermore, previous research findings point to a high likelihood that drinking heavily can result in epigenetic changes that drive up cravings to the point of dependence.
Due partly to the socially acceptable nature of alcohol, it can be difficult for people to understand its impact on society and how that compares to illicit substances. It’s also hard for many to understand the importance of genetic research as it relates to alcoholism and heavy drinking.
Others may feel that the findings don't tell them more than they already know: if one continues drinking uncontrollably, they have a good chance of developing an addiction. However, the value of this research is not so much about linking heavy drinking to a risk of dependence. This research’s value is more about supporting efforts to counteract widespread alcohol abuse.