Sunday, January 7, 2001

Getting closer to finding a genetic cause has been among the most significant areas of alcoholism research in the last few years and will continue to be a key area of study in 2001.

That is what National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) Director Enoch Gordis says in the NIAAA’s “10th Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health.” The 492-page report, updating the one last released in 1997, highlights advances since then in all areas of alcohol research from its impact on traffic crashes to illness to prevention.

The effects of alcohol abuse from traffic crashes to crime to illness cost the United States an estimated $184.6 billion annually, the report states.

At the root of alcoholism may be a genetic predisposition combined with environmental factors. Scientists are getting closer to finding which genes are involved.

“The findings in the ongoing Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) are quite remarkable,” Dr. Gordis says. “Researchers are making a concerted effort to find the genes related to alcohol. No one is saying it is all genetic, but genetics do play a role.”

NIH’s COGA study involves 987 persons from high-risk families. The most recent research indicates evidence that genes on chromosomes one and seven are involved in alcoholism, the report says. Another NIAAA study of 152 American Indians shows evidence of a gene influencing alcoholism on chromosome 11. Both studies reported finding evidence of a gene that was protective of alcoholism in the region of chromosome four.

“What they have done is find the genetic ‘hot spots’ for alcoholism,” Dr. Gordis says. “There are hundreds of genes in that area, but we are getting closer to identifying which genes. With the completion of the human genome project, I think in the next few years we will find the genes themselves.”

When the genes are definitively located, there could eventually be medication formulated for persons with susceptibility, he says.

“We also will be able to better focus or prevention efforts,” Dr. Gordis says. “Alcoholism is both environmental and genetic, but why focus on those who are not high risk?”

Other findings in the report:

• Advances in neuroimaging and molecular biology have enabled scientists to identify the specific parts of a baby’s brain that are damaged when a mother drinks heavily during pregnancy.

“Alcohol is probably bad in much smaller amounts than we know,” Dr. Gordis says. “We are learning the way migration of cells fail to form connections, which leads to poor neurotransmitter function. All the research adds up to one thing that women should not drink during pregnancy.”

• Education does have an impact on preventing underage drinking. NIH researchers studied two communities in California and one in South Carolina and found that sales clerks were half as likely to sell to minors if they worked in a community with programs that trained clerks, enforced underage sales laws and had a high-profile awareness program.

Another study, the Northland Project, followed 2,000 high-risk sixth-graders in Minnesota. As the students progressed through eighth-grade, researchers found that an intervention program by parents, schools and policy-makers can effectively reduce underage drinking provided the intervention starts before adolescents begin to use alcohol. Time is the crucial element in prevention, since NIH data shows that 24 percent of eighth-graders reported having a drink in the last 20 days.

“There are considerable risks from underage drinking,” Dr. Gordis says. “It kills more and costs more than all the other drugs put together.”

• That stricter drunken driving laws have resulted in fewer fatal crashes. In most states, the legal blood alcohol limit is 0.10 percent. New research shows the 17 states that have reduced the legal limit to 0.08 percent experienced a 26 percent drop in the number of fatal crashes. Another study predicted that the states that lowered the legal limit to 0.08 could expect a 8 percent annual decline in the number of fatal crashes.

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