JAN 29, 2019 10:44 AM PST

Heavy Drinking may Have a Lasting Epigenetic Effect

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Researchers have found that alcohol may be exerting an epigenetic effect on heavy drinkers. The epigenome refers to chemical tags that are added to the genome and can have a powerful influence on gene expression. This work, reported in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, suggests that binge or heavy drinking could have a lasting impact on gene expression. That genetic change may also cause people to want to drink even more alcohol.

The Rutgers-led team's findings may eventually help researchers identify biomarkers -- measurable indicators such as proteins or modified genes -- that could predict an individual's risk for binge or heavy drinking. / Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"We found that people who drink heavily may be changing their DNA in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more," said the senior author of the study Distinguished Professor Dipak K. Sarkar, the Director of the Endocrine Program in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. "This may help explain why alcoholism is such a powerful addiction, and may one day contribute to new ways to treat alcoholism or help prevent at-risk people from becoming addicted."

Alcohol has remained popular in many cultures around the world for centuries, and alcohol abuse is common. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people die every year from irresponsible alcohol use, which is about five percent of all deaths. It's especially bad in certain groups - it causes about 13.5 percent of all deaths in those aged 20 to 39 years. Alcohol has a causative influence on over 200 health disorders and is to blame for a variety of other problems including car accidents and violence.

In this work, researchers at Rutgers and Yale University School of Medicine assessed how alcohol consumption was affecting two genes that are thought to help regulate alcohol intake behaviors, PER2 and POMC. The PER2 gene has an impact on the circadian clock, and the POMC gene plays a role in stress response.

After comparing moderate, heavy, and binge drinkers, the scientists found that in binge and heavy drinkers, PER2 and POMC had changed; the methylation of these genes, a common epigenetic marker, was altered. Alcohol intake has already been shown to impact methylation; this work indicates how it might be influencing certain genes. In heavy and binge drinkers, the levels of PER2 and POMC expression were also reduced. As alcohol intake increased, those genetic changes increased as well.

This work may aid in the development of biomarkers that can predict a person’s risk of binge or heavy drinking, noted Sakar. 

The video above explains epigenetics. The video below explores the genetics of alcoholism.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Rutgers University, WHO, NIAAA, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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