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- Binge and heavy drinking may trigger a long-lasting genetic change.
- A new study suggests certain genes are damaged from heavy drinking that produce certain proteins.
- These changes can lead us to want to drink more.
Alcoholism has been linked to specific genes in scientific research, suggesting there is a hereditary component to the addiction. According to a new study, drinking large amounts of alcohol could actually influence our genes too.
The research, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, was conducted by Rutgers University. It was a small study, consisting of just 47 people, but the results showed that binge drinking may trigger a long-lasting genetic change, which results in greater alcohol cravings.
“We found that people who drink heavily may be changing their DNA in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more,” said Dipak K. Sarkar, the senior author of the study. “This may help explain why alcoholism is such a powerful addiction, and may one day contribute to new ways to treat alcoholism or help prevent at-risk people from becoming addicted.”
Previous research has shown how alcohol can alter pathways in the brain that influence memories, and make us want to drink more. But this new research suggests more and more drinking leads to further changes within our DNA that can make cutting back even harder.
The team took blood from three groups: moderate drinkers, binge drinkers, and heavy drinkers. Binge drinking was defined as seven drinks per week for women, and 14 drinks per week for men. To qualify as a heavy drinker, women had to have at least eight drinks a week, and men had to have at least 15.
Then they analysed the blood from the participants, checking levels of PER2, a gene that regulated certain brain functions, and POMC, a gene for producing a stress-response protein.
Binge and heavy drinkers had alterations in the DNA of these two genes, so it was harder for cells to produce the proteins they code for. These changes increased with greater alcohol intake, the researchers said, and the participants’ desire to drink was increased.
Sarkar told Inverse that in mice studies, when PER2 and POMC genes aren’t expressed, they drink more.
“In the animal studies, we have evidence that these two genes are quite involved in positive reinforcement of alcohol drinking,” he said. “We think that it has a profound effect on the body function as well as the behaviors. That led us to think that maybe it’s involved in addictive behavior.”
The results show a strong correlation, but the researchers can’t say for sure what the causation was. Alcoholism is likely a result of many different things, including genes – both inherited and alterations over time.
But according to the researchers, their findings could help identify biomarkers in people which could indicate their risk for binge or heavy drinking.