As alcohol consumption is linked to a growing list of negative health outcomes, our drinking habits are coming under increasing scrutiny. Research has highlighted considerable variation in alcohol intake between individuals, and mounting evidence suggests that these differences are a result of genetic factors. A study in 2004 by John Whitfield and colleagues at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research demonstrated that variation in long-term average alcohol intake is almost entirely due to genetic differences. This finding has prompted molecular genetic research to focus on identifying the precise genes that are important in mediating alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is known to interact directly with several neurotransmitter systems in the brain. The serotonin system, for example, has been linked to several aspects of alcohol abuse, and is also implicated in common comorbid conditions such as depression and anxiety. The serotonin transporter gene (5HTT), which controls the reuptake of serotonin at synapses in the brain, is one gene that has received considerable attention. It contains a functional polymorphism in its promoter region that is known to be associated with altered serotonin activity, with the so-called 'short' form acting to decrease serotonin transporter expression and serotonin reuptake.
In a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Medical Genetics B, Marcus Munafò and colleagues at the University of Oxford examine the relationship between 5HTT genotype and alcohol consumption in a non-alcohol dependent sample of social drinkers in the United Kingdom. They find that the short allele of the 5HTT gene is significantly correlated with increased alcohol consumption. Furthermore, the effect appears to be different in males and females – their results indicate higher alcohol consumption in men with one or more copies of the short allele, while in women consumption was highest among heterozygotes.
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