Potential predictive genetic test for alcoholism

21 May 2014

Researchers from the US have identified a panel of eleven genetic variants linked with alcoholism, and from these developed and tested a Genetic Risk Prediction Score.
The researchers combined genome-wide association study data from a group of alcohol dependent patients along with other information from human studies and animal models to identify genes potentially linked with predisposition to alcohol dependence and abuse, especially those with potential behavioural effects. Many of these genes have also been linked with susceptibility to other neuropsychiatric disorders.
Testing of the genetic risk prediction model in some independent groups suggested that it could distinguish between alcoholics and normal control subjects. One gene, SNCA (which encodes a protein involved in brain and nervous functions) had a particularly strong effect; this gene has reportedly already been identified as a susceptibility gene for responses to alcohol.
Writing in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the authors of this study suggest that the findings provide the basis for further research and could lead to ‘personalization of diagnosis and treatment, by integrating genetic data, blood gene expression biomarker data and clinical data’. They also say that a predictive genetic test based on their findings could identify those at risk and inform lifestyle choices.

Advance knowledge of an innate intolerance to alcohol in the form of increased susceptibility to alcohol abuse could indeed be of value in allowing some at-risk individuals to avoid the environmental exposure (drinking alcohol) that could lead to disease. However, as with all complex behavioural traits it would be unwise to rush to conclusions about the true predictive ability of such a test – let alone the clinical utility or social ramifications of a robust test. 

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