Why does stress make some people reach for a drink, but not others? Variations in a key stress-response gene may be at least one reason, suggests a German study on mice. The scientists report their findings in the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Rainer Spanagel of the University of Heidelberg and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry found that mice lacking the "CRH1" gene drank more alcohol than normal mice did after stressful experiences.
If humans with variations in this gene behave the same way, a fairly simple test may identify recovering alcoholics likely to relapse under stress, according to Spanagel.
"We think that, with our model, we have the neurobiological mechanism underlying a very specific phenotype of alcoholic patient," Spanagel said. "Patients with alterations in this gene may be particularly susceptible to stress, and may respond with drinking."
Psychologists might then be able to help these patients, Spanagel suggested, teaching them coping strategies for stressful situations.
"We've long known that stress is the biggest cause of relapse for many, but not all addicts, even those who've long been in recovery. This important study points both to the underlying mechanisms of this effect and potential targets for prevention and treatment efforts," said Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of AAAS, and formerly Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Researchers generally agree that stress-induced alcohol drinking and the tendency to relapse seem to have a significant genetic component, but the connection is not well understood. Some studies have implicated a signaling network in the brain, called the CRH system, that regulates hormonal and behavioral responses to stress.
Contact: Lisa Onaga
American Association for the Advancement of Science