Heavy drinking and alcoholism marked by distinct sets of genes

Heavy drinkers and alcoholics share genetic similarities but also exhibit key differences, a massive new genome-wide analysis published April 2 in the journal Nature Communications found.

Researchers at Yale School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania searched for genetic variants among individuals with a history of heavy drinking and those identified as having alcohol use disorder. The study included 274,000 subjects enrolled in the United States Veterans Administration’s Million Veteran Program.

The researchers found 18 distinct risk regions overall: five were associated with both groups, eight were connected with heavy drinkers only, and five were linked only to alcoholism.

There tended to be more variants associated with neuronal function” in the alcohol use disorder group, said senior author Joel Gelernter, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and professor of genetics and of neuroscience at Yale.

Researchers also found that gene variants linked to alcoholism are significantly associated with the genetic risk of developing a variety of other psychiatric disorders.

Twin studies and other research have shown that genetics accounts for about half of the overall risk for alcoholism.

The findings “may have longer term clinical implications in diagnosing risk and developing medication,” Gelernter said.

Hang Zhou of Yale is a co-lead author of the paper. Henry R. Kranzler and Rachel L. Kember of UPenn are co-lead authors.

Primary funding for the study was provided by the U.S. Veterans Administration.

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