Are you at risk of becoming an alcoholic? The answer may lie with your genes.
Anne Lin

10 Jun 2014 - 8:00 AM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2014 - 9:50 PM


Jade Mann sees himself as a "beer enthusiast" and consumes an average of four to five drinks every night. His father also drank as much as he did, and died of a heart attack at 51.

He told Insight he did give up smoking after his father's death, but admits to applying a different standard when it comes to alcohol.

"This is probably a part-excuse, but drinking is probably my vice. We don't go out, only rarely, and we don't gamble or anything. I am a functional alcohol, yes. I'm at work by 7.30am. Drinking has never impacted on my work," Mr Mann says.

But what if Jade's drinking habits were formed before he was even born?

Jade Mann.

A new study published in the Translational Psychiatry medical journal has found that some people may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.

Dr Alexander Niculescu said they tested people in three different populations across both genders and have identified 11 "risk" genes that can predict which people are more at prone to becoming alcoholic. For those with a family history of alcoholism, the danger is even greater. All of this can be detected with a simple genetic test.

"Having a family history already suggests that there is a genetic risk that's being transmitted. Those people should not expose themselves to temptation and drink even small amounts, as they are more prone to go down a slippery slope of higher amounts of alcohol and full-blown alcoholism," Dr Niculescu said.  

"I mean if you're carrying this risk variance but you're not in a culture of drinking, you're not going to be an alcoholic, period. If severe alcoholism runs through your family it could cut both ways. You could become an alcoholic even if you're not carrying all of the genes, you could become an alcoholic just because it is part of your family environment or you could become abstinent and go in the other direction just because you saw so much destruction."

For people on the lower end of the scale, Dr Niculescu says this "doesn't mean they have carte blanche to drink, but it is less of a concern."

Dr Alexander Niculescu is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Indiana University.

In May, a global report by the World Health Organisation, revealed that one person dies every 10 seconds from alcohol-related causes. In Australia, 20 per cent of the population already drinks at risky levels and 60 per cent of all police attendances involve alcohol.

Given the statistics, these findings could not have come at a more pertinent time.

But it's not all bad news if you carry these genes.

Dr Niculescu said these gene variants also have a lot to do with drive and compulsions, which can be used for positive things like in sports or professional achievement. However, this may also mean it may be more common for highly successful people like atheletes to develop an alcohol problem if they do drink.    

"We all know anecdotes and historical examples of people who could have been alcoholics or were and quit and became very compulsively driven in other areas that led them to success and so on. People always give Churchill as an example, you know 'Churchill drank heavily and he lived to 90'. Okay but he lived to 90 because he was physiologically robust; he didn't live to 90 because he drank a lot. If he didn't drink he might have lived to 100," he said.

"What we are discovering at the biological level is that there is this physiological robustness and drive that goes hand in hand with predisposition or compulsion to alcoholism and if you manage to avoid getting sucked into alcoholism and just use your biological endowments and drive for other things, you might be an overachiever in other areas. It is a very interesting area, your genes are not bad per se, how you use them and what environment they manifest in comes into play."

Winston Churchill was a British prime minister.

Dr Niculescu said that while "alcohol is deeply embedded in human history", Australia has a very interesting history in terms of the type of gene pool we have.

"The reason I am fascinated about Australia is that I think the genes that are identified and involved in alcoholism have to do with – and this is where I move into the speculative realm – physiological robustness."

"By and large everybody loves Australians because they are very positive, cheerful, like to party and so on. But that might come at a price with a slightly higher rate of alcoholism."

"So people who drink to relax and disconnect and so on but their biologies are very robust, if they didn't drink they would use all that energy and all that drive to achieve other things, in sports and different domains of society. I think that somehow fits with the robust pioneer kind of history of Australian people."

On this issue of the chronic alcohol consumption level among Australia's indigenous population, Dr Niculescu said it is difficult to determine without testing, but suspects it has more to do with cultural issues.

"You don't know until you test them. It is hard to say if it is genetic or if it just that they are traumatised by modern society, they see no future and just prefer to drown themselves in alcohol," Dr Niculescu said.

"It could be that it is more stress and culture and alienation that drives those populations to heavy drinking rather than genetic factors. That is something that is now empirically testable, if I were to speculate I would say it is more the cultural alienation and the stress that is driving the high rate of alcoholism in groups like Australian Aborigines and American Indians."

Dr Niculescu said they are now developing a test specifically for children who come from such high-risk families.

He recommends those found to be at risk should plan their subsequent adulthood in terms of avoiding alcohol completely. They should also be aware that if they drink, they may become dependent, or at least they may become alcohol abusers or binge drinkers.

For Jade Mann, the stakes could not be higher now that he's aware there's a risk his kids could inherit a drinking problem.

"I guess it's what you're exposed to over the years and to me, well that makes sense that. I'm basically a mirror of my father in that regard. So you know, it's something that you've got to think about."

On this week's episode of Insight, guest host Stan Grant which asks whether Australians are in denial about alcohol. What do you think?