Binge drinking, or consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time, has long been known to be harmful, while binge drinking among teenagers has been a growing concern. Now, scientists think they may have found a genetic cause as to why some teenagers are more likely to binge drink than others.
A team of scientists from King’s College London had previously found that animals lacking a gene already known to relate to problem drinking — RASGRF 2 — exhibited less of a desire for alcohol than those with the gene.
Building on this, researchers then tested 663 teenage boys to see if those who had a version of the gene would exhibit a heightened dopamine response when tested in a way that would simulate the expectation of alcohol reward.
Scientists were able to track this by watching for more activity in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, a key region involved in dopamine release.
When they later contacted their test subjects once those boys had reached 16 and then quizzed them about their drinking habits, they found that those who had the variation of the RASGRF-2 gene did indeed drink more frequently and heavily.
The thinking behind the process is that the RASGRF-2 variation predisposes certain people to a heightened dopamine reward from drinking. However, pleasure-seeking plateaus once the experience becomes a routine thing, therefore in order to get that same dopamine high, seekers must go to increasing lengths. It is thought that the RASGRF-2 variation may make its possessors particularly susceptible to this chain of behavior.
Binge drinking can be incredibly dangerous because consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time can compound the effects of the alcohol. Furthermore, because often the aim of binge drinking is to get drunk as quickly as possible, this often leads to mixing drinks in a manner that can lead people to be unaware of just how much alcohol they have actually consumed, potentially leading them into dangerous situations and perhaps even cases of alcohol poisoning.
As to whether binge drinking is genetic, the answer is no, not solely.
Lead researcher Professor Gunter Schumann is keen to stress that this research does not prove that one gene alone causes binge drinking — far from it, it is likely that binge drinking is a result of the interplay of several genes and a number of environmental factors.
However, Schumann believes this research can provide important clues into future avenues of research and, crucially, begin to enable science to explore ways in which we can identify and help teenagers who are predisposed to this chain of behavior manage their pleasure seeking behavior in a way that is not harmful.
“We found that this gene plays a crucial role in controlling how alcohol stimulates the brain to release dopamine, a nerve signalling molecule, and hence trigger the feeling of reward.
“Identifying risk factors for early alcohol abuse is important in designing prevention and treatment interventions for alcohol addiction.”
This study came about as part of a wider pan-European study known as the Imagen Consortium which aims to investigate mental health and risk taking behavior in teenagers from England, France, Ireland and Germany.
The study’s findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Image credit: Thinkstock.
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