- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

Crave a martini and a quiet cigarette after work?

Chances are Dad or Mom did as well. A group of British psychiatrists says we are genetically predisposed to popular vices because of certain personality traits.

Some people are hard-wired, in other words, to tipple, puff or indulge in a few recreational drugs, the researchers say. They inherit their taste for the racier life.

After analyzing 46 studies involving 20,000 people, an Oxford University research group concluded that habitual smokers and drinkers have a variation in the “human serotonin transporter gene,” which influences how the brain reacts to pleasure.

“Our study suggests that there’s a genetic basis to certain kinds of personality traits which may be important in influencing whether people take up habits like smoking or whether they subsequently give them up,” Dr. Marcus Munafo said at a British cancer forum Thursday.

Those who indulge tend to be naturally somewhat anxious or depressed, Dr. Munafo and his colleagues say, and therefore more likely to find solace in a drink or a cigarette.

But is the tendency really in the genes? The debate is ongoing and confusing to most laymen, particularly when vices take on a little virtue in other research.

The Scripps Research Institute in California, for example, announced last week that nicotine may help block the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Last year, St. Thomas’s Hospital in London announced that beer helped develop strong, healthy bones.

The health benefits of red wine have long been a mainstay of popular nutritional studies.

Finding the root causes of bad habits, though, is a touchy business. Many researchers are reluctant to proclaim, for instance, that alcoholism is strictly genetic, citing the influence of family dynamics, home environment and human will.

The National Institutes of Health announced in 1998 that its studies show that there is a “clear genetic link” among alcoholics in the same family, though researchers stressed that their findings revealed “risk, not destiny.”

A 1999 study at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of San Diego found that as many as one-quarter of the sons or brothers of alcoholics become alcoholics, along with 5 percent of the daughters or sisters.

A 2001 study of several hundred families by nine different medical centers found that some had genes that predisposed them to both alcoholism and depression, inspiring the researchers to seek a familial pattern.

And last year the Indiana University School of Medicine found that members of alcoholic families actually “felt more intoxicated” when they drank alcohol than those from nonalcoholic families. They also needed to drink more to maintain the desired effect.

Some dismiss the link between genes and indulgent behavior.

“There is no genetic condition that completely removes free will with respect to smoking and drinking,” Jonathan Chick, a Royal Edinburgh Hospital psychiatrist, told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Friday.

“Genes may make someone more likely to get a ‘buzz’ from alcohol or set up a pattern of behavior,” he said.

British psychologist John Maule agreed, telling the BBC that the genetic link is “implausible.

“When it comes to risk, it’s too simplistic to link risk-taking behavior to a single gene.”

Oxford’s Dr. Munafo says his research is aimed at new treatments for those troubled by their use of alcohol, nicotine or recreational drugs.

“It’s basically trying to plot the pathway between the gene and the unhealthy behavior. Personality occupies some middle ground,” Dr. Munafo said.

His complete findings are featured this month in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, which can be found at www.nature.com/mp.

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