Researchers at the University of Texas have identified a network of genes that are expressed exclusively and in unison in the brains of alcoholics.
The causes of alcoholism are diverse, multifaceted and grounded in specific circumstances. Each alcoholic has a unique personal history, and any attempt to help a particular person find lasting sobriety must account for this important fact. Treatments for alcoholism must be scustomized to meet the needs of the individual, and without such an approach no recovery program is likely to succeed in the long term.
But researchers believe the above description of the disease of alcoholism is only half-accurate. Alcoholism has an environmental context, undoubtedly. However, it also has a powerful genetic aspect that scientists are only now beginning to comprehend.
In Search of the Genetic Markers for Alcoholism
In a recent edition of the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a research team at the University of Texas in Austin published the results of what may be a landmark study on the genetics of addiction. Through a comparison of genetic material collected from the brain tissues of alcoholics and a non-alcoholic control group, the UT researchers identified the existence of a network of genes that expressed exclusively and in unison in the brains of the alcoholics. The genes in this set are known to work in coordination with each other, and while it is not clear exactly how they might predispose a person to alcoholism, the evidence that they do is persuasive to the point of irrefutability.
In order to achieve this breakthrough, the UT scientists relied on a technology called bioinformatics, which they used to decipher patterns of RNA sequencing in the neural tissues collected from the subjects chosen for their study. RNA acts as a messenger for DNA, and by tracking its activities is it possible to discover what is happening in the depths of the genetic ocean that lies beneath.
The types of technology being used to study genetic materials and processes are extraordinary in both their sophistication and their accuracy, and there is little reason to doubt the claims of the Texas researchers about what they’ve found and what it represents. Not long ago a bi-national research team from the United States and Germany also used techniques of genetic detection to identify 11 genes that are frequently expressed in the brains of alcoholics. Their work was published in May 2014 in the online journal Translational Psychiatry and is entirely separate from the research carried out in Texas, although both studies have provided strong evidence to confirm the existence of genes linked to alcoholism.
Unraveling the Threads of Addiction
The researchers responsible for studies like this do not claim that every person who possesses the relevant genetic markers is destined to become an alcoholic. Most addiction specialists assert that genetics and environmental factors are equally important cohorts in the onset and development of a drug or alcohol addiction, and they believe that neglecting one factor or favoring one over the other will inevitably lead to an unbalanced approach that misconstrues the true needs of substance abuse victims. Alcoholics hoping to beat their dependency will need intervention and treatment services that include detoxification, talk therapy and peer interaction, regardless of their genetic inheritance.
But in order to be helped, alcoholics must first be found, or if possible warned ahead of time, about the dangers they might face if they choose to consume alcohol, and that is where knowledge about the genetic aspects of alcoholism could prove highly useful. Medical screening procedures capable of detecting the relevant genetic factors could help identify those at risk, giving physicians and psychiatrists a source of invaluable information that could be used to help existing and potential alcoholics alike.
The other area where genetic data could prove useful is in drug therapy. It is known, for example, that the anti-addiction drug naloxone reduces the cravings of alcoholics with a particular variation in one specific gene, but does little to help alcoholics who do not possess that exact variation. Information like this is what researchers are seeking, and the deeper they can probe into the workings of the human genome, the more useful knowledge they will be able to acquire.
Only three drugs have been approved for use in the treatment of alcoholism, but it is hoped this number will jump dramatically once addiction researchers know which genes they need to target in their research efforts. More knowledge in this area would mean the research and development process could be streamlined considerably, saving scientists time, money and effort as they work to create chemical combinations that possess the necessary medicinal properties to counteract the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse.