Screening for an Alcoholism Gene

Why do we care whether alcoholism is in bad genes or sowed dreams? Because knowing who is at risk by genetic prodisposition save lots of lives.

If addiction is inscribed in our DNA then the vulnerability genes can be isolated and screening tests developed to see who has them. Current treatment for alcoholism and other addictions focuses almost exclusively on mending lives -- after the damage is done. On the rare occasions when the subject of prevention comes up it's only after the fact.

"A genetic screen would shift the focus of treatment to prevention and education," says Dr. Markku Linnoila scientific director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Those with vulnerability genes could be taught how to avoid addiction problems before they arise.

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Isolating genetic markers for alcoholism may also pave the way for new drug therepies. "It may be possible to design medical strategies to reverse some of the effects of the [defective] gene," surmises Linnoila. Currently there is no drug therapy for alcoholics except Antabuse, a nausea-inducing agent given to chronic abusers to discourage them from drinking.

But genetic screening could have Orwellian side effects in the absence of proper confidentiality. Labeling people as alcoholics before they've touched a drop is a potentially dangerous practice warns Linnoila. "Any genetic marker must show an overwhelming risk for developing the I disease to make intervention a real option."

After all, Linnoila adds, "nobody is born an alcoholic."

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