British researchers have recently revealed more scientific evidence explaining why some people are more prone to drink alcohol. It has long been known that genetics plays a role in alcoholism, and in this recent study, scientists have unraveled the neural processes involved in alcohol abuse.
A study recently released in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences journal discovered that a particular gene, known by scientists as RASGRF-2, plays an important role in regulating how alcohol stimulates the brain by triggering the release of dopamine, producing feelings of reward.
Apparently, some people have genetic variations of the RASGRF-2 gene where alcohol use gives them a greater sense of reward, which makes them more prone to becoming a regular or heavy drinker, researchers said. The study was led by Gunter Schuman of King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry.
Alcohol, drugs, and intense physical exercise activate the brains dopamine system, inducing sensations of pleasure and reward.
Scientists have been researching the RASGRF-2 gene and have found it to be a “risk gene” for alcohol abuse. It is only with the results of this study that they have found out exactly why. Until now, the mechanism involved in the process was not identified.
When this study began, research scientists examined rats modified to have the RASGFF-2 gene removed in order to study their interactions with alcohol. In their research, they discovered that the lack of RASGRF-2 was connected to a significant reduction in alcohol-seeking activity. In addition, they uncovered another interesting tidbit: When the mice did consume alcohol, the absence of the alcohol gene lowered the activity of dopamine producing neurons in a region of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area, preventing the brain from releasing dopamine and limiting subsequent reward.
The research team went on to analyze the brain scans of 663 fourteen year-old boys and found that when anticipating a reward in a cognitive test, those with genetic variations of the RASGRF-2 gene had more activity in an area of the brain closely linked to the VTA and also associated with dopamine release. This suggests that people with a genetic variation of the RASGRF-2 release more dopamine when they expect a reward, thus deriving more pleasure from it.
In order to verify their findings, the scientists examined the drinking behavior of the same group of boys two years later, after many of them had already begun to drink frequently. They discovered that those with the RASGRF-2 gene variation drank more often at this age than those without it.
Schumann tells us these teens sought out situations which fulfilled their sense of reward and made them happy. Their brains were wired to find alcohol rewarding, so they sought it out. He goes on to say of the research, “We now understand the chain of action: how our genes shape this function on our brains and that, in turn, leads to human behavior.”
Approximately 2.5 million people die each year from alcohol use. This accounts for nearly four percent of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In England and Wales alone, 210,000 people will die prematurely due to alcohol in the next 20 years, with a third of those preventable deaths due to liver disease. Hopefully, further understanding of the causes of alcoholism will allow researchers to find new and creative means to reduce these numbers.
- Kelland, Kate. “Binge Drinking Gene: RASGRF-2 Helps Explain Teenage Alcohol Abuse.” Www.reuters.com. N.p., 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.