Untangling the matrix of risk factors for alcoholism

  • A family history of alcoholism places a person at greater risk of developing alcohol problems.
  • Children of alcoholics also tend to exhibit other types of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • The neurotransmitter serotonin is believed to regulate many behaviors and emotions.
  • Genetic variation in the serotonin transporter gene may partially determine overall levels of serotonergic function.

Children of alcoholics (COAs) have a high risk of developing alcoholism, simply by virtue of their family history of alcoholism. Many studies have found that COAs also tend to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems. In the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers explore the biochemical basis of two aspects of 'behaviors of undercontrol.' Their findings indicate that behavioral disinhibition (BD), such as impulsive aggression, and negative affect (NA), such as depression and anxiety, may be genetically influenced through the regulation of a neurotransmitter called serotonin (5-HT).

"Serotonin's primary role appears to be that of an inhibitor," explained Geoffrey R. Twitchell, Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs and lead author of the study. "Dysfunction in 5-HT neurotransmission has been found in individuals who exhibit problems with behavioral and affective control.

For example, 5-HT deficits have been observed in antisocial alcoholics who exhibit BD, such as aggressiveness and difficulty controlling alcohol consumption. The relationship between 5-HT dysfunction and impulsive aggression in non-alcoholic groups has also been reliably documented. In addition, many studies have found 5-HT dysfunction in individuals who exhibit increased NA, as indicated by depression and anxiety. Depressed and highly anxious individuals are often treated with 5-HT enhancing medications such as selective serotonergic reuptake inhibitors."


Contact: Geoffrey R. Twitchell, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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