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Research examines genetics of problematic alcohol use

Jun. 3, 2020, 2:40 PM


by Kelsey Herbers

Alcohol use disorder and problematic drinking are genetically correlated with substance use, certain psychiatric illnesses and other neuropsychiatric traits, according to a study involving Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, aimed to identify risk variants for problematic alcohol use and to further understand its genetic architecture.

Researchers conducted a genome-wide analysis of problematic alcohol use in more than 400,000 people and identified 29 independent risk variants, 19 of which had never been reported. A gene-based analysis also revealed 66 genes associated with problematic drinking, of which 46 were newly discovered.

When examined for known interactions with medications, 16 of these genes showed interactions with 325 drugs, potentially providing targets for the development of medications to manage problematic alcohol use through precision medicine.

Lea Davis, PhD

“Genetics provides a window into biology. Understanding the very complex biology of addiction can aid in finding effective treatments and in reducing treatment barriers, including social stigma,” said Lea Davis, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Genetic Medicine, who contributed to the study along with Julia Sealock, a student in the Human Genetics PhD and Molecular Medicine programs.

When looking at the genetic correlation between problematic drinking and other traits, tobacco and lifetime cannabis use, risk-taking behavior and insomnia were all positively correlated. Psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder and schizophrenia were also associated. These findings are in line with the known adverse medical, psychiatric and social consequences of problematic drinking.

Heritability analyses also showed enrichments in certain brain regions, providing biological insights into the cause of problematic drinking.

This research was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health (grants AA012870, GM080178 and DA032573) and the National Institute for Healthcare Research Imperial Biomedical Research Centre.

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