Have you ever thought that your drinking habit was out of your control? Has there been a moment in your life which has inextricably lent itself to drinking and you have no idea why? Well, scientists may have discovered a gene that determines an irrepressible desire for alcohol.
Dr Quentin Anstee, Consultant Hepatologist at Newcastle University co-published his latest findings last week in Nature Communications. Continuing on from the research carried out by Professor Howard Thomas at Imperial College London, Dr Anstee has added to the evidence establishing that the code to our drinking habit lies in the gene Gabrb1. The gene regulates alcohol consumption. When the gene is faulty, this new information suggests, subjects excessively drink.
The evidence has been collected from experimenting on mice. By manipulating the gene Dr Anstee believes he has shown that those mice experimented on consumed 85% of their daily fluid in alcohol.
The mice which were carrying a mutation in the gene Gabrb1 repeatedly worked a series of tests involving levers to acquire an alcoholic substance equivalent to the strength of wine. The mice with a normal code for the gene showed no interest in the alcoholic drink and consumed normally. The mice with the faulty gene continued to work harder and consumed a larger alcoholic volume than they needed – similar to the trait of alcoholism observed in humans.
The precise cause of the alcohol-drinking mice was tracked down to a single base-pair point mutation in the gene. The specific sub unit of the Gabrb1 gene, the beta 1 subunit, is an important component of the GABA A receptor in the brain. This receptor helps regulate brain activity.
The researchers found that the gene mutation caused the receptor for alcohol to activate spontaneously even when the usual brain regulator, GABA, was not present. Dr Anstee has stated, “As the electrical signal from these receptors increases, so does the desire to drink to such an extent that mice will actually work to get the alcohol for much longer than we would have expected”.
The receptors Dr Anstee is referring to are in relation to the areas of the brain which organise our relationships to pleasurable emotions and reward.
The evidence however is by no means conclusive, and Dr Anstee has conceded that “environmental factors [do] come into play,” but added, “there is the real potential for this to guide development of better treatments for alcoholism in the future”.
The research has been funded by the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit, a ten year program currently headed by Professor Howard Thomas which involves a consortium of researchers at five UK universities including Imperial College London, Newcastle University, the University of Dundee and the University of Sussex.
Dr Anstee’s recent paper adds to the supported evidence that alcoholism is more than just a product of a collapsed social order, how much more however is speculative and this research should not be used to substitute a ‘genetic get out’ for the complicated social implications that the condition of alcoholism has.
I suggest this: next time you find yourself drinking, let’s say vodka, pause for a moment, and ask yourself in all earnestness, what do I think this spirit is worth, really worth, in relation to my spirit? If it seems intuitive then perhaps you are in agreement with Dr Anstee and his team of researchers. If not, then perhaps you sway towards the idea of external factors influencing your relationship with alcohol. Both explanations seem as bitter-sweet as each other.