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Environment Can Have More Influence than Genes for Teen Alcohol Problems

Parental practices can make a difference for teens with drinking issues, says new research.

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Father and teenage son-- by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

Parents who pay closer attention to their teen’s whereabouts and their social circles could help them reduce genetic inclinations for alcohol use and developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) from drinking too much, too fast, or too often.

A new study of gene-environment interactions shows that parents who intervene and talk to their kids about alcohol could help them steer clear of alcohol-related problems. Adolescents and college students, who often drink large quantities of alcohol at once, are more likely to experience alcohol poisoning, drunk-driving crashes, and assaults. Those who begin drinking prior to age 14 are more likely to develop a serious problem with alcohol later in life, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

"Consuming alcohol during adolescence confers different health risks, some are similar to adults, others have particular significance for this stage of human development," said John F. Kelly, associate professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and associate director of Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine. “Early exposure to alcohol during this developmental phase can dramatically influence the chances that someone will develop an alcohol use disorder."

Previous research suggests that genetic influences on drinking are influenced by environmental factors, such as exposure to parental drinking.

The Expert Take

The study fuels the “nature versus nurture” debate, as scientists continue to explore how much of our life is shaped by our genes and how much is formed by our environment.

“These findings add to a growing body of work that suggests genes are not destiny; rather, there are many things that we can do in the environment to offset genetic risk,” Kelly said. "This research has crucial social and public health implications because it addresses the intriguing issue of how something that we do have control over—our environment—can influence something that we do not have control over—our genes. Importantly, this study suggests there are things that parents can do, like monitoring their child's social behavior more closely.”

Robert Miranda, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and corresponding author for the study, explained that while genetics still play a role, environmental factors can help considerably.

“The implication is that risk for the developing alcohol addiction is complex and involves interplay between genetic and environmental factors,” Miranda said. “It is important for future research to more fully elucidate the nature of this relationship and to develop intervention and prevention strategies that are personalized to the individual based on his or her unique liability and clinical profile."

Source and Method

Researchers identified interactions between a functional single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) of the μ-opioid receptor (OPRM1) gene (A118G) and the risk for developing an AUD during adolescence.  

“This SNP of the μ-opioid receptor (OPRM1) gene has received considerable attention among alcohol researchers over the past decade,” Miranda said. “A number of adult studies suggest persons with a certain variant of this gene experience alcohol as more rewarding and show heightened risk for developing alcohol-related problems. We were interested in extending this work to adolescents."

The researchers recruited adolescents from the community with flyers and informational booths stationed at malls and high schools. The 104 adolescents had European ancestry (53 males, 51 females), and were between 12 and 19 years old. Every participant provided a DNA sample for genetic analyses and completed measures of parental monitoring and deviant peer affiliation.

The Takeaway

“It is well-known that parenting practices and affiliation with deviant peers influence the risk of developing problems with alcohol during adolescence," Miranda said. "This study further highlights the importance of these malleable factors by showing greater parental monitoring and less affiliation with deviant peers can reduce genetic risk for developing alcohol use disorders."

Kelly agreed and said that parents can begin to talk more with their kids about the risks of alcohol.

Study results are currently available on early view and will be published in the February 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism.

Other Research

More alcohol research studies and research opportunities on alcohol use and alcohol use disorders can be found in the NIAAA Strategic Plan for Research, 2006-2010

study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reviewing advances in alcohol research and ethnic group disparities found that alcohol use and binge drinking for teens aged 12-17 was highest for whites, followed by Hispanics, African Americans, and then Asians.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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