Researchers have long known that alcoholism runs in families; in fact, studies show that 60% of alcoholics have at least one alcoholic parent. Yet whether the disease is caused by wayward genes or lost dreams remains a mystery. Studies say both sides may be right.
Alcoholics, it is now clear are not all of one kind. Investigators have found that, among men, there are at least two types -- those with early-onset abuse (prior to age 25), and those whose illness sets in later in life.
Researchers suspect that family incidence of alcoholism runs unusually high among early-onset alcoholics, suggesting a genetic predisposition. This group comprises 40% of the estimated million male alcoholics in the United States. Impulsivity and violent behavior are common among these men, who are motivated to seek alcohol is as a way to get high.
By contrast, men who become alcoholics later in life have less family involvement and use alcohol as a way to relieve anxiety and stress. (Women problem drinkers are more in keeping with the late-onset male pattern.)
The possibility that genetic makeup predisposes some men to alcoholism has sent scores of researchers scrambling to find the chromosomal culprit. One group of studies implicates a gene that affects the ability of brain cells to respond to dopamine--a neurochemical active in pleasure responses. Unable to get enough dopamine because they lack a sufficient number of receptors for it, the thinking goes, such people use alcohol as self-medication in an attempt to boost dopamine levels.