Genetic Link to Alcoholism Term Paper

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Genetic Link of Alcoholism

Introduction great deal of attention and research has recently been concentrated on the genetic link of alcoholism and on the possibility of accounting genetically for drunken behavior. Early studies found reliable genetic transmission of alcoholism. Much of this research focused on the offspring of alcoholics and on the biochemical or neurological abnormalities they inherit that possibly lead to pathological drinking. Other studies focused on a gestalt of personality traits (concentrating on impulsiveness and antisocial activity) that can end in alcoholism.

According to Holden (1985, p. 38), "A decade ago such a theory (of inherited antisocial personality and alcoholism) would have been dismissed as out of hand." Today, this viewpoint has gained broad acceptance amongst psychologists. New research has created more detailed deterministic models of alcoholism based on biological concepts models, which have had a significant impact on the thinking of both public and clinical workers.

This paper will examine the genetic link of alcoholism, examining existing research on the subject to draw conclusions about their ability to describe alcoholism. Particular attention will be given to the idea that alcoholism is a disease determined by biological predisposition (Milam and Ketcham, 1983).

Is Alcoholism Inherited?

More and more scientific evidence suggests that alcoholism has a genetic component. However, the actual gene that may cause it has yet to be discovered. Studies of laboratory animals, in addition to various human test subjects, demonstrate that genetic factors play a key role in the development of alcoholism, but experts still do not know how much of a role.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry statistics show that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics. However, it must be noted that environmental factors could be a factor in many of these cases.

Family, twin and adoption studies suggest that alcoholism definitely has a genetic component. In 1990, Blum et al. proposed an association between the A1 allele of the DRD2 gene and alcoholism. The DRD2 gene is the first candidate gene that has shown promise of an association with alcoholism (Gordis et al., 1990).

Research suggests that genes greatly influence the chance of alcoholism occurring. Through extensive studies and research, it has been shown that a predisposition to alcoholism may be inherited.

According to Ohlm (1991), alcoholism is a "chronic, progressive, incurable disease, characterized by loss of control over alcohol and other sedative drugs." Alcoholism has three stages, with various symptoms. In the first stage, alcoholism involves relief drinking, amnesia, and drunk driving. The transition between the first and second stages involves a loss of control over the disease, as well as one's life (Ohlm, 1991). The middle stage includes family problems, such as divorce and dishonesty, job problems, legal problems, and moral issues. The final stage is characterized by physical deterioration (Ohlm, 1991). These stages occur in this general order in all alcoholics, with the corresponding symptoms, making alcoholism a reliable and predictable disease.

The outcome of alcoholism is a national problem and a threat to society. Ninety-six percent of all alcoholics die of alcoholism. Less than one percent become insane, and the remaining four percent of all alcoholics try to get help and recover from their disease. Alcoholism is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the first cause in the 15- to 24-year-old age group (Ohlm, 1991). Luckily, there is treatment for alcoholism. For those who seek help, the recovery rates are from 70 to 80% (Ohlm, 1991). Alcoholism treatments include support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, rehabilitation centers, and counselors.

Genetics influences almost everything in a human being's body. There are many physiological differences between alcoholics, and nonalcoholics, which can be seen in relatives of alcoholics, even if the relative is not an alcoholic. For example, in alcoholics, the liver has a hard time storing sugar, and has problems using sugar gradually, but an alcoholic's liver often burns alcohol instead of sugar. Partially because of this, alcohol can be more of a stimulant than a depressant to alcoholics (Royce, p. 147). For this reason, many alcoholics lose control over their drinking.

The Genetic Link

For hundreds of years, observers have suggested that alcoholism is passed from one generation to the next. Morel believed that parental drunkenness produced alcoholic excess in the first generation, and grew as it was passed through generations, until the fourth generation became sterile, and the family line ceased (Murray and Stabenau, 1982). However, these early views were dismissed. Jellinek posed three questions that aimed to understand the genetic effects on alcoholism: "(1) does parental alcoholism cause such damage to the germ cells as to produce defects in the first generation? (2) Does parental alcoholism bring about a true mutation in the offspring? (3) Is there a hereditary liability factor involved in alcoholism?" (Murray and Stabenau, 1982, p. 135-136).

The first two questions suggest that alcoholism may create the inherited predisposition to alcoholism, while the third question suggests that it is because of genes in the parent that the offspring may have a higher risk for alcoholism. Still these questions related to a person's nature and the research that followed was minimal (Murray and Stabaneu, 1982).

In recent years, family studies have shown that the children of alcoholics are three to four times more likely to have alcoholism than the children of non-alcoholics (Shuckit, 1999). Approximately twenty percent of sons and brothers of alcoholics become alcoholic, and five percent of the daughters and sisters (Goodwin, 1991). These observations demonstrate the genetic link in the development of alcoholism.

Most researchers today believe that the influences of both genes and the environment determine alcoholism risk. In the past, research on alcoholism in families has focused mainly on environmental factors, including how family members interact with one another or the influence of peer pressure on the development of alcoholism (Vietnen, 2002).

Sociologists have examined how economic status or the availability of alcohol affect prevalence of alcoholism. Until recently, genetic analysis has been limited to disorders that were biologically based, such as cystic fibrosis, rather than disorders that appeared to the result of one's environment, such as alcoholism.

Researchers have found it very difficult to find genes for conditions such as alcoholism, which manifests differently in different people and is the result of both environmental and genetic factors (Vietnen, 2002). Technological advances in the past few decades, however, have enabled scientists to study these "complex traits."

With an array of new methods, genes that cause diabetes and asthma have been identified, and there is optimism that similar methods can now be applied to alcoholism. For instance, researchers know that having a high tolerance for alcohol increases an individual's risk for having alcohol problems later. Researchers believe that one or more genes influence this kind of tolerance. Discovering a genetic link to alcoholism may help researchers develop new treatment strategies for alcoholism.

In addition to evidence that alcoholism may run in families, there is compelling evidence that alcoholism may have a genetic component (Vietnen, 2002). For example, identical twins with the exact same genes are more likely to have similar alcohol problems than fraternal twins, who share only half of their genes.

Likewise, when nonalcoholic parents adopt infant children of alcoholics, these children are still about three times more likely to have an alcohol problem, even though they grew up in a safer environment. These findings indicate that about half the tendency to have an alcohol problem comes from environmental factors, including family situations, and the other half results from genes.

One recent study focused on two groups of people -- one with a family history of alcoholism and one without -- to see if they differed in alcohol toleration. The results revealed a significant difference. According to Sean O'Connor (2002), professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, there are many factors of alcoholism that make research a complex and time-consuming task.

O'Connor's study revealed that individuals that had a high risk for alcoholism have a greater initial response to alcohol than those identified as low risk. In addition, the results revealed that high-risk individuals adapt more quickly to alcohol, requiring them to drink more to have the same effect.


Alcoholism affects families, friends, neighbors, employers, acquaintances and many others, and is closely linked to some of the most difficult social issues, including crime, homelessness, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Children of alcoholics are at increased risk because of genetic and environmental factors. Evidence suggests that children of alcoholics may be at more risk for alcoholism just like children of diabetics are at higher risk for diabetes.

Additionally, children of alcoholics tend to develop unhealthy living patterns. They are unable to trust themselves or others, h handle uncomfortable feelings, or build positive relationships. Children of alcoholics who lack these skills are also at higher risk for school failure, depression, increased anxiety, as well as trouble with alcohol and other drugs. For this reason, it is important to understand as much…

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