Addiction is a tough disease to talk about, not least because there’s no obvious cause. What makes some people perfectly able to enjoy a drink while others need to stay away for their own health is a topic of constant debate. Researchers at Purdue and Indiana University have just wrapped up an enormous, decades-long study that argues it’s genetic, although the results sadly don’t offer an easy answer.
The study, detailed at PLOS Genetics, involved breeding several strains of rats over several decades. The strains ranged from rats that would drink alcohol over water to rats who were stone cold sober their entire lives. Then, researchers compared and contrasted the genomes of each strain. The results? There is a genetic cause for alcoholism, but it’s spread across hundreds of genes, each going a certain way, each pushing a rat towards alcoholism or sobriety.
That’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that this makes it incredibly unlikely we could tackle the genetic basis for alcoholism, although the study doesn’t rule out pharmacological tools. Still, changing the expression of even one gene can be enormously risky, and changing hundreds would be expensive, time consuming and likely fatal. Nor will this address the psychological side of addiction, although there are useful drugs that might help with that as well.
The good news is that this might give us a way to test for genetic markers for alcoholism and beyond. If we know what to look for, doctors can test genomes for signs of alcoholism and warn their patients before they even have one drink. Of course, it likely wouldn’t have 100% accuracy, and genetics are not fate. But if somebody knows about their genetic predisposition to alcoholism before they have that first beer, it might save them an enormous amount of pain.