Journal article Open Access

Genetic and Environmental Influences on the Development of Alcoholism: Resilience vs. Risk

Enoch, M.-A.

The physiological changes of adolescence may promote risk‐taking behaviors, including binge drinking. Approximately 40% of alcoholics were already drinking heavily in late adolescence. Most cases of alcoholism are established by the age of 30 years with the peak prevalence at 18–23 years of age. Therefore the key time frame for the development, and prevention, of alcoholism lies in adolescence and young adulthood. Severe childhood stressors have been associated with increased vulnerability to addiction, however, not all stress‐exposed children go on to develop alcoholism. Origins of resilience can be both genetic (variation in alcohol‐metabolizing genes, increased susceptibility to alcohol's sedative effects) and environmental (lack of alcohol availability, positive peer and parental support). Genetic vulnerability is likely to be conferred by multiple genes of small to modest effects, possibly only apparent in gene–environment interactions. For example, it has been shown that childhood maltreatment interacts with a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene variant to predict antisocial behavior that is often associated with alcoholism, and an interaction between early life stress and a serotonin transporter promoter variant predicts alcohol abuse in nonhuman primates and depression in humans. In addition, a common Met158 variant in the catechol‐O‐methyltransferase (COMT) gene can confer both risk and resilience to alcoholism in different drinking environments. It is likely that a complex mix of gene(s)—environment(s) interactions underlie addiction vulnerability and development. Risk–resilience factors can best be determined in longitudinal studies, preferably starting during pregnancy. This kind of research is important for planning future measures to prevent harmful drinking in adolescence.

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