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Variation of Gene Linked to Binge Drinking

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


MILWAUKEE - The same week that the University of Wisconsin was ranked the nation's No. 2 party school, a study suggests a new explanation for all that binge drinking - genetics.

College students who carried a particular version of a common gene tended to have more harmful drinking habits than those who had a different version, according to a study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.

The gene, known as the serotonin transporter gene - 5HTT - has previously been shown to play a key role in emotions, including depression and anxiety.

"One might speculate that in a new environment like college, if one is prone to a higher level of anxiety, one might also be more likely to use alcohol," said Paolo B. DePetrillo, the senior investigator with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who co-authored the study.

However, DePetrillo said the relationship between drinking and emotions is not clearly understood, and that further studies are needed.

For the study, researchers surveyed about 200 Caucasian college students aged 17 to 23 years old about their alcohol consumption and then collected their saliva to look at a gene that helps regulate serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain known to play a role in depression.

Everyone inherits long or short versions of the 5-HTT gene from their parents, resulting in three possible combinations: two short, two long or a short and long.

Although the majority of the general population has either two short or two long genes, about 30 percent of the white population has one of each gene, DePetrillo said.

But the percentage varies within each ethnic group, he said. For example, African-Americans tend to have a higher proportion of the long variant, while Asians have more short variants, he said.

Binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks at a single sitting for men and four for women, was more prevalent in students with two copies of the short form of the gene, the study found. In addition, those students were more likely to drink to get drunk and to consume more drinks at a sitting than students with other combinations.

The study also found that having at least one copy of the long variant was protective; those students tended to drink less, even though they went out to drink as often as the other students.

A study last month by Madison researchers also found that people with two short genes were more likely to develop depression after experiencing multiple stressful events.

Alcoholism affects 1 out of every 13 adults, or about 14 million Americans, according to the alcoholism institute. Men typically have more problems associated with their drinking, though alcohol problems are highest among young adults ages 18-29 and lowest among adults ages 65 and older.

In addition, people who start drinking at an early age, particularly those younger than 14, are more likely to develop alcohol problems later in life.

More than 70 percent of adult Wisconsinites drink, and a love affair with booze begins by age 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite a drop in the percentage of students who binge drink at UW-Madison - from 66 percent in 2001 to 62 percent in 2003 - the school still managed to leap from 10th to 2nd place in The Princeton Review's national "party school" rankings.

"It's a chronic problem, and it's a struggle (to quit) because drinking has immediate effects for people who drink," said Allen Zweben, director of the Center for Addiction and Behavioral Health Research and a professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee. "But the more you drink, the more harmful it becomes."

Zweben said that people who drink too much are at a higher risk for a wide variety of ailments and disorders including cirrhosis of the liver, stroke, high blood pressure, accidental injuries, domestic violence, sleeping disorders, depression and chronic headaches.

But there is hope for those wanting to quit, he said.

Zweben and Lance Longo, medical director of addiction psychiatry at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, are conducting a federally funded project to help improve recovery rates for alcoholism. Project COMBINE, a nationwide anti-alcoholism effort by the alcoholism institute, uses both traditional talk therapies and medication to decrease the number of people who relapse by helping them to battle the withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism - tremors, anxiety and irritability.

Studies indicate that 50 percent or more of people treated for alcoholism will relapse within three months and 75 percent within one year. The rate increases to 90 percent after four years.


(c) 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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