Journal article Open Access

Alcoholism: genes and mechanisms

Oroszi, Gabor; Goldman, David

Alcoholism is a chronic relapsing/remitting disease that is frequently unrecognized and untreated, in part because of the partial efficacy of treatment. Only approximately one-third of patients remain abstinent and one-third have fully relapsed 1 year after withdrawal from alcohol, with treated patients doing substantially better than untreated [1]. The partial effectiveness of strategies for prevention and treatment, and variation in clinical course and side effects, represent a challenge and an opportunity to better understand the neurobiology of addiction. The strong heritability of alcoholism suggests the existence of inherited functional variants of genes that alter the metabolism of alcohol and variants of other genes that alter the neurobiologies of reward, executive cognitive function, anxiety/dysphoria, and neuronal plasticity. Each of these neurobiologies has been identified as a critical domain in the addictions. Functional alleles that alter alcoholism-related intermediate phenotypes include common alcohol dehydrogenase 1B and aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 variants that cause the aversive flushing reaction; catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) Val158Met leading to differences in three aspects of neurobiology: executive cognitive function, stress/anxiety response, and opioid function; opioid receptor μ1 (OPRM1) Asn40Asp, which may serve as a gatekeeper molecule in the action of naltrexone, a drug used in alcoholism treatment; and HTTLPR, which alters serotonin transporter function and appears to affect stress response and anxiety/dysphoria, which are factors relevant to initial vulnerability, the process of addiction, and relapse.

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