Experts have repeatedly warned about the dangers of alcohol use disorder since the COVID-19 pandemic began, especially after online sales of alcohol jumped 243 percent in March and overall sales rose 55 percent in late March, according to Nielsen. And while environmental factors like stress and depression can play a role in alcohol abuse, researchers have known for years that genetics is an important factor too. Now researchers at Yale have identified 29 genetic risk factors that can lead to problematic drinking.
The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, conducted a meta-analysis of genetic data from 435,000 people from four separate biobanks. The researchers looked for shared genetic variants in the people who met the criteria for problematic alcohol use, like having more than 14 servings of alcohol a week.
Based on their analysis, the researchers discovered 19 new independent genetic risk factors for problematic alcohol use that were shared by these people and confirmed 10 risk factors that had already been identified by previous research.
Problematic drinking that becomes severe is called “alcohol use disorder,” or AUD, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease marked compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over drinking alcohol and a poor emotional state when someone is not drinking, the NIH says.
An estimated 15 million people in the United States have AUD, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Problematic alcohol use is “a really huge problem in the U.S. and in the world,” study co-author Dr. Joel Gelernter, a professor of genetics and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “A lot of progress has been made in understanding the biology of the disorder over the years, and there are a few effective treatments, but genetics studies have the potential to uncover previously unknown biological mechanisms,” he says.
Lead study author Hang Zhou, an associate research scientist in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, points out that their work isn’t perfect. For starters, his team only studied genetic data from people of European descent. “The genetic backgrounds are different from population to population,” he tells Yahoo Life. Also, he says, the findings can’t determine risk for an individual person — just what the risk may be among a group of people.
Unfortunately, there’s really no way at this point for the average person to find out if they carry these genetic variations, Gelernter says. “But it’s important to keep in mind that alcohol use disorders are highly genetically complex,” he says. “Meaning, there’s not a gene or even a few genes that by themselves appreciably increase risk.” To understand the way genes increase risk, it’s important to study a lot of genes at once, Gelernter says, “and then, with our present level of knowledge, you would still be talking about such a small increase in risk that the information would not be helpful clinically.”
That’s why Gelernter recommends looking at your family history to help determine your own risk. “People with strong family histories of alcohol misuse can consider using alcohol only with great care or avoiding alcohol altogether,” he says. And, of course, drinking less alcohol can lower everyone’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, Zhou says.
“We know genetics plays a role, from other research,” addiction expert Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Dallas-based outpatient treatment center Innovation360, tells Yahoo Life. “What we’re trying to do is be more specific about it. The more we identify genetically, the better able we’re going to be able to drill down which individuals are most at risk and to best treat them if a problem does come up.”
Treatment for problematic alcohol use varies and includes options like medications and behavioral therapies and, in some cases, both, according to MedlinePlus, an online information service produced by the United States National Library of Medicine. And, in more extreme cases, people may benefit from intensive treatment, like a residential treatment center. But relapse is common, and current treatments aren’t perfect.
Gelernter says that he and his colleagues are hoping to find “new pharmacological targets that could eventually improve treatment” through their work.
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