Alcoholism: Nature, Nurture or Both?


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Alcohol.jpeg

According to the Oxford English Dictionary alcoholism is " the condition of being dependent upon or addicted to alcohol, and unable to limit its consumption to a level which does not produce deleterious physical, mental, or social effects." I am sure most of you are familiar with the word and its definition. Being a Penn State student I am greatly aware of the very large presence of alcohol in the college social scene. We are always warned about the dangers of over consumption of alcohol and this got me wondering about alcoholism, what causes it and whether or not there is some sort of biological mechanism that is a determining factor in the risk an individual has for developing disease?

After doing some research it seems that scientists have not made any ground-breaking discoveries that really argue one way or the other. Most of the articles that I read seemed to have come to the conclusion that it is both nature and nurture that determine an individuals risk of developing alcoholism. Here is why:

According to all of the articles it is long believed that alcoholism runs in families and as of recently this has become more of a scientifically supported hypothesis than just a belief. The idea that alcoholism runs in families supports both theories that alcoholism is genetic and that it is affected by the environment one is brought up in.

According to a newsletter put out by the Kansas State University, 50 to 60% of risk of alcoholism is genetically determined. According to this same article, there are several genetic factors that may help to determine one's predisposition to alcoholism.
An example of a genetic factor that may play a role in this is the differences in enzymes that cause individuals to metabolize alcohol differently than others. According to an article on the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) one of these such enzymes is on the gene ADH1B gene which encodes another gene, ALDH2. When ALDH2 is mutated in an individual's genome it causes the individual to experience adverse side effects such as flushing, elevated heart rate and nausea after a very minimal amount of alcohol is consumed. Thus the person will be less likely to abuse alcohol and is protected by this mutated gene. Another genetic factor that plays in is how the individual's brain responds to alcohol. According to the article, The Genetics of Alcoholism, Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain has a larger presence in the brains of alcoholics compared to non-alcoholics. This is still being studied and has yet to be replicated.

According to the article, The Genetics of Alcoholism, some studies have come to the conclusion that it is not so much specific genes that are the culprit behind the risk of alcoholism but a combination of several different types of genes. This  includes the ones that affect certain personality traits which according to the Kansas State newsletter are half inherited, half learned. So children who inherit genetics that are linked to antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety run a higher risk to become an alcoholic.

So what about that other 40-50% of non-genetic factors that contribute to one's risk of alcoholism?

According to the same newsletter mentioned above, environment also plays a role in risk of alcoholism. If a child grows up in a culture where heavy drinking is accepted and practiced that child is up to 50% more likely to drink heavily than someone who grew up in an environment where heavy drinking was not encouraged.  

According to all of the sources, one's risk of becoming addicted to alcohol is determined by a combination of nature and nurture. It is possible that alcoholism is a "heterogeneous condition" meaning that it is made up of many conditions with different biological mechanisms all rolled into one (The Genetics of Alcoholism).After doing some research it seems that scientists have not made any ground-breaking discoveries that really argue one way or the other. Most of the articles that I read seemed to have come to the conclusion that it is both nature and nurture that determine an individuals risk of developing alcoholism. Here is why:


According to all of the articles it is long believed that alcoholism runs in families and as of recently this has become more of a scientifically supported hypothesis than just a belief. The idea that alcoholism runs in families supports both theories that alcoholism is genetic and that it is affected by the environment one is brought up in.

According to a newsletter put out by the Kansas State University, 50 to 60% of risk of alcoholism is genetically determined. According to this same article, there are several genetic factors that may help to determine one's predisposition to alcoholism.
An example of a genetic factor that may play a role in this is the differences in enzymes that cause individuals to metabolize alcohol differently than others. According to an article on the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) one of these such enzymes is on the gene ADH1B gene which encodes another gene, ALDH2. When ALDH2 is mutated in an individual's genome it causes the individual to experience adverse side effects such as flushing, elevated heart rate and nausea after a very minimal amount of alcohol is consumed. Thus the person will be less likely to abuse alcohol and is protected by this mutated gene. Another genetic factor that plays in is how the individual's brain responds to alcohol. According to the article, The Genetics of Alcoholism, Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain has a larger presence in the brains of alcoholics compared to non-alcoholics. This is still being studied and has yet to be replicated.

According to the article, The Genetics of Alcoholism, some studies have come to the conclusion that it is not so much specific genes that are the culprit behind the risk of alcoholism but a combination of several different types of genes. This  includes the ones that affect certain personality traits which according to the Kansas State newsletter are half inherited, half learned. So children who inherit genetics that are linked to antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety run a higher risk to become an alcoholic.

So what about that other 40-50% of non-genetic factors that contribute to one's risk of alcoholism?

According to the same newsletter mentioned above, environment also plays a role in risk of alcoholism. If a child grows up in a culture where heavy drinking is accepted and practiced that child is up to 50% more likely to drink heavily than someone who grew up in an environment where heavy drinking was not encouraged.  

According to all of the sources, one's risk of becoming addicted to alcohol is determined by a combination of nature and nurture. It is possible that alcoholism is a "heterogeneous condition" meaning that it is made up of many conditions with different biological mechanisms all rolled into one (The Genetics of Alcoholism).

2 Comments

Lots of great information here! The one piece of information that really got me thinking was the statistic that a child is up to 50% more likely to drink heavily if they grew up in an environment where heavy drinking is accepted and practiced. I know from personal experience that this isn't true, at least for me. My parents were never really heavy drinkers, in fact I can probably recall only a couple of times where I've seen my parents drink. I started drinking when I was in high school, which is pretty hard to avoid when you grow up in State College. I always thought that the reason I started drinking so early was because I was never introduced to or around booze, so that made it seem like something I absolutely needed to try at that age. I feel like other kids that were allowed to have a sip of their parent's wine were less likely to binge drink on the weekends just because they had already been exposed to alcohol.

Here's an article that talks about parenting and alcohol, doesn't really agree with anything I just said, but the facts are still interesting!
http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/alcohol-and-kids-is-zero-tolerance-best/

HI Cheri! I didn't know you were in this class :)
Anyway, I totally agree with you about how when children grown up in an environment where alcohol is somewhat taboo, when they do get the chance to drink it seems that many go overboard because it was always forbidden fruit before. It seems like it would be one of those situations that needs to walk the fine line between not allowing kids enough exposure and allowing them too much.
The article that you posted was interesting and so were the numbers in it. However it seems like this study could be explained by many third variables.

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