You have probably heard that many consider alcoholism to be a genetic condition. The rumor is that if you have any family history of alcoholism, then your chances of also becoming reliant on the beverage increases tenfold. But is this really true? According to recent study published in Forbes, this claim does appear to have some merit(1).

Apparently, the Scripps Research Institute has been busy putting this theory to the test with the help of some lab mice, and they have identified a specific gene that greatly affects someone’s habits related to alcohol use. This is exciting news, because if people can be identified as having a greater risk of becoming dependent on alcohol, they will be able to use caution when drinking if they even decide to drink at all.

What is the Potentially Life-changing Gene?

It’s called Nf1, which stands for neurofibromatosis type 1, and it is in charge of regulating the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric) production in the brain. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for calming the nervous system, while helping your body relax and feel less anxious. So when the Nf1 gene is in full force, the GABA production increases, making the body crave for the assistance of alcohol to reproduce these feelings of relaxation.

What are the details of the study?

The researchers involved in the study actually had a three-part system to ensure consistent results. That last thing they wanted was to make claims without backing them up.

  • Part 1: The first step of the study involved altering the DNA of test mice. They partially removed the Nf1 from one group of mice, while keeping the gene intact in a second group. Then, they gave them all some alcohol, followed by a period of withdrawal. What happened next was interesting. Even after just one break from alcohol use, the mice with the full Nf1 gene consumed even more alcohol the second time it was offered. The test mice who only had a limited amount of the Nf1 gene remaining consumed the same amount of alcohol on the second go-round, proving that the Nf1 gene encourages increased alcohol intake.
  • Part 2: Next, the researchers took an in-depth look at the amount of GABA that was released in comparison to how much of the Nf1 gene was present. This confirmed their beliefs that the GABA production does indeed rise in the subjects with the Nf1 gene.
  • Part 3: Finally, the scientists partnered up with geneticists to analyze the DNA of 9,000 different people. They compared the amount of Nf1 present with the person’s drinking habits. With this final step, they were able to confirm without a doubt that the amount of Nf1 does have an effect on whether or not the person will develop a dependence on alcohol.

Understanding the Results

To put it simply, the researchers were able to prove that the Nf1 gene has a direct impact on the amount of GABA that the brain produces. And they have known for sometime that the more GABA someone has, the more likely they are to become reliant on alcohol. Therefore, those with the Nf1 gene will have a hard time simply drinking on occasion.

Why does it matter?

So why is it such a big deal that this gene has been identified? Because now scientists can say with complete positivity that the disease of alcoholism is at least in part due to genetics. This is important for three reasons:

  • Less Guilt First, this is a crucial discovery for those people looking to recover from alcohol dependence. The condition is a disease, and if people have the Nf1 gene present, they may not have any control over their need to consume alcohol regularly. However, it is important to realize that even if the condition can be partially blamed on genetics, that doesn’t mean treatment can’t be effective.
  • Better Treatment Secondly, if someone entering recovery can be identified as having the Nf1 gene present, their treatment plan can be planned out accordingly.
  • Possible Prevention Finally, this discovery could potentially prevent people from trying alcohol in the first place. If they know that they have a high chance of becoming reliant on alcohol once they taste it, they might choose to sustain from the very beginning.

While there has always been some indication that the disease of alcoholism is hereditary due to its common reoccurrence in family histories there is now proof that this is, in fact, the case.

This breakthrough is exactly what the researchers were hoping for, because now they can move forward on discovering what science can do to counterbalance the effects of the Nf1 gene. Perhaps someday, genetic retraining will be part of the recovery process for alcoholism, in addition to standard treatment options. How cool would that be?