Genes and Environment Shape Women's Path to Alcoho
> 4/24/2008 12:21:30 PM

Genetic and environmental factors can both be influential factors in the development of alcoholism, and new research from the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research furthers our understanding of the different roles played by genes and environment. Specifically, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis focused on how these influences affect women, observing the transitions women made from unhealthy drinking to alcohol dependence.

Their study examined three transitional stages of alcoholism, beginning with an individual's first experience drinking alcohol, moving to problematic behaviors stemming from alcohol use (drunk driving, for instance), and culminating in alcohol dependence. The subjects, 3,546 female twins, were interviewed about their alcohol use, and the researchers used these interviews to identify factors associated with the subjects' progression through the alcohol-related stages. They found that 85 percent of the subjects drank alcohol and that 7 percent had developed a dependency. Environmental factors that both twins experienced, such as family conflict, were influential only on the age at which a subject first began drinking. Genetic factors, however, had a broader influence on drinking behavior and affected every transition between the three stages. Genetic factors accounted for 30 percent of the transition from non-use to use and for 47 percent of the speed at which subjects transitioned through the stages.

While genes had a wider-reaching effect on the subjects' progression toward alcoholism, researchers stress that environmental factors still have a significant impact on behavior and, importantly, can be addressed and changed. In this study, genetic factors failed to account for more than half of the observed behavioral changes and, as head researcher Dr. Carolyn Sartor explained in a press release: "That's good news in terms of modifying these behaviors and reducing the risk of developing alcohol dependence. Genetics are not destiny, and our findings suggest that there are opportunities to intervene at all stages of alcohol use."

Continued study will be beneficial, and the researchers plan to investigate other behaviors related to alcoholism and examine environmental and genetic factors in samples of both men and women as these factors may affect men and women in different ways. Continued study may lead to a better understanding of how individuals move from unhealthy drinking to addiction and may lead to new treatment programs that can address the specific factors involved. Individuals with a family history of alcoholism have a higher risk of becoming dependent upon alcohol themselves, but with effective programs in place, they can work to overcome the environmental factors that can further increase their risk. An individual whose alcohol use has progressed to dependency will face a tough battle in recovering from their addiction, and if we can identify those most at risk, we can help them to modify their behavior and avoid addiction.

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