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Drinking and Dopamine: Genetics and Alcoholism

Posted in Alcoholism

There is a combination of genetic and environmental factors that raise a person’s risk for developing an addiction to alcohol. Though science has suggested through studies that there are genetic differences that cause a person to be more susceptible to alcoholism, there has never been a definitive research project to that conclusion.

A study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has developed a study that provides evidence to support genetic disposition to alcoholism. The study was published in the October 19 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical Experimental Research. The study is the first to show direct evidence that the response a person has to alcohol depends on their genes.

The researchers compared the response in the brain to long-term alcohol drinking in two separate genetic variants of mice. One of the mice strains lacked the gene for dopamine D2. Dopamine D2 is the receptor that responds to dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure and reward. The other group of mice had genetically normal dopamine D2.

The study’s results showed that the mice lacking the dopamine D2 gene showed significant biochemical alteration in the brain, in areas that are associated with alcoholism and addiction.

Lead author Panayotis (Peter) Thanos is a neuroscientist with Brookhaven Lab and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Laboratory of Neuroimaging. Thanos explains that the results of the study show that a person’s pre-existing genetic makeup plays a critical role in determining how the brain responds to alcohol consumption.

The findings, says Thanos, may help scientists understand how a particular genetic profile may interact with environmental factors to produce one type of result, while another genetic profile may create a very different reaction.

The scientists hope that eventually this research will lead to genetic screening for individuals that believe they may be at an increased risk of alcoholism. There may be valuable information available that will help a person who is genetically at risk decide whether it is wise for them to consume any amount of alcohol.

The researchers were led to examine the dopamine receptor because of a wide range of studies at Brookhaven that investigated dopamine systems and determined that a deficiency of dopamine D2 receptors can cause an individual to be less able to experience ordinary pleasures. Not being able to experience ordinary pleasures can make people more vulnerable to drug abuse, alcoholism and obesity.