Problematic alcohol use is a major public health issue that affects millions of people worldwide. It can lead to alcohol use disorder, alcohol-related medical consequences, and various psychiatric disorders. However, the genetic factors that contribute to problematic alcohol use are not well understood.
A new study, published in Nature Neuroscience, has identified 29 genetic variants that are associated with problematic alcohol use. The study is the largest genome-wide analysis of problematic alcohol use to date, involving more than 435,000 people of European ancestry from four different biobanks or datasets.
A triple increase in genetic risk loci
The researchers, led by Yale University School of Medicine, looked for shared genetic variants among those who met criteria for problematic alcohol use, based on self-reported or medical records data. They found 19 previously unknown independent genetic risk factors for problematic alcohol use, and confirmed 10 previously identified risk factors.
The new data triple the number of known genetic risk loci associated with problematic alcohol use, said Yale’s Joel Gelernter, the senior author of the study. He added that the results also provide a better position to evaluate individual-level risk for problematic alcohol use.
A link with psychiatric disorders and brain function
The study also included information on genetic risk factors for several psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. This allowed the researchers to study shared genetic associations between problematic drinking and these disorders. They found that problematic alcohol use was genetically correlated with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, but not with bipolar disorder.
The researchers also found that the genetic variants associated with problematic alcohol use were enriched in the brain and in evolutionarily conserved regulatory regions of the genome. These regions are important for biological function and gene expression. Using a technique called Mendelian randomization, the researchers were able to investigate how one genetically influenced trait affects another genetically linked trait. They found that problematic alcohol use traits, such as psychiatric states, risk-taking behavior, and cognitive performance, had causal effects on each other.
This gives us ways to understand causal relations between problematic alcohol use traits, said Yale’s Hang Zhou, the lead author of the study.
A step towards better prevention and treatment
The study is a significant contribution to the field of alcohol research, as it reveals new insights into the biology and relationships of problematic alcohol use. The findings may also have implications for the prevention and treatment of problematic alcohol use and its related disorders.
The researchers hope that their study will stimulate further research on the genetic and environmental factors that influence problematic alcohol use, and the development of new interventions that target these factors.