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Genetic Influences on Drinking Motivation

Alcohol Works Like Anti-Anxiety Drugs

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Updated January 15, 2004

In a study that looked at the genetic affects of the reason people are motivated to drink, Carol A. Prescott, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University, noted that there are several ways in which genetic factors may 'intersect' with social drinking.

"There is an overlap of the genetic factors which influence risk for alcoholism and those which influence drinking to relieve social anxiety," she said. "Also, alcohol works on the brain in a way quite similar to anti-anxiety drugs, and there are genetic influences on how these drugs affect brain receptors. In addition, personality characteristics such as the need for social stimulation and 'risk taking' are in part inherited. People with these personality traits may be more likely to seek social activities which involve drinking and this in turn increases their risk for alcoholism."

"I think the 'bridging' of genetics and human motivation to drink is critical in understanding how distal genetic influences manifest themselves in variables that are known to be proximal to drinking," said Sher. "Presumably, there are many intermediate links between genes and self-reported motivations to drink, and drinking motivations are undoubtedly closer to the alcohol-use disorder phenotype than to upstream links in the mediational chain such as specific gene products and neuronal receptor function.

"However, given that the question of whether genes are important has largely been answered, we need to keep refining the question of how they are important and the current study is significant in this regard."

"It's important to note that our results don't prove that motives are causal, only that they are consistent with a causal explanation," said Prescott. "Nonetheless, these findings have important implications for intervention. These results, in combination with others, suggest that drinking motives may have a causal influence on alcoholism. If so, this provides an important point of intervention among individuals at high risk. Motives can be measured prior to the development of drinking problems, and at-risk individuals can be taught strategies for reducing their social anxiety other than using alcohol."

"In my opinion, there are at least three major issues that future research needs to address," said Sher. The first involves improving the measurement of drinking motives, which currently uses self-reports. Yet humans are highly fallible reporters on the question of why they do various things." Sher called the use of "electronic diaries" within natural environments a promising option. "The second issue concerns how drinking motives change over the development and course of alcohol-use disorders across the life span. For example, in our own research we've found that alcohol expectancies influence subsequent drinking, but are also affected by prior drinking. Given the reciprocal nature of the relation between drinking and motivation, the success of any cross-sectional approach to elucidate the interrelationships of gene, drinking motives, and alcohol-use disorders will be limited. The third issue involves the use of molecular approaches.

"We are only now beginning to examine how allelic variations in specific genes are related to alcohol expectancies and alcohol effects; eventually, we may better understand how genetic variability is manifested in individual differences in alcohol response and how this influences an individual's drinking."

Part One: Genetics and Motivations

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