Scientists discover a gene that could help cure alcoholism forever

An international team of researchers said they have identified a gene responsible for the desire to drink alcohol, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

The study identified a variation in the β-Klotho gene as connected to the regulation of social alcohol use. The less-common variant –observed in about 40 percent of the people in this study – is related to a decreased desire to drink alcohol.

“The findings are based on the largest genome-wide association meta-analysis and replication study to date mapping and comparing the genetics – the DNA – of more than 105,000 light and heavy social drinkers,” study author David Mangelsdorf, a pharmacologist at the University of Texas Southwestern, said in a news release.

“Much of the research on alcohol consumption has focused on addiction,” noted study author Steven Kliewer, a professor of molecular biology and pharmacology at UT Southwestern. “However, the overall burden of alcohol-associated disease reflects the total amount of alcohol consumed, not just addiction.”

Could This Eventually Cure Alcoholism?

The study team said their work may result in the development of medications to manage alcohol usage – potentially in those with drinking issues. Alcoholics were not included current study, however.

Being able to nudge people away from heavy drinking could have significant public health benefits like decreased cardiovascular disease risk. According to the American Heart Association, excessive alcohol usage is connected to two particular heart disease risk factors: obesity and high blood pressure.

bottles of alcohol at a bar

Decreasing alcohol dependence would be a huge boon for public health. (Credit: Toronto Eaters/Unsplash)

The study analyzed the genetics of light and heavy social drinkers of European ancestry in four dozen studies around the world. Study volunteers answered surveys on their weekly drinking habits and provided genetic samples.

Heavy drinking was described as greater than 21 drinks per week for men and greater than 14 drinks per week for women. Light drinking was deemed to be 14 drinks or less per week for men and seven drinks or less per week for women. A “drink” was considered a small glass of wine, or a half pint of beer.

The team was able to identify the ß-Klotho gene as a major factor. This gene codes for the protein ß-Klotho, which forms a receptor structure in the central nervous system with standard receptors for FGF21, a hormone generated in the liver.

To learn more about how the gene works, the study team provided mice genetically modified to create ß-Klotho a choice between water and alcohol. The team saw mice favored alcohol even when they were supplied with hormone FGF21, suggesting that FGF21’s capability to curb the preference for alcohol is dependent upon the presence of ß-Klotho.

“This is a hormone with some remarkable pharmacologic effects,” Mangelsdorf said. “The current study suggests that the FGF21-β-Klotho pathway regulates alcohol consumption in humans and seems to point to a mechanism that we might be able to influence in order to reduce alcohol intake.”

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Image credit: Thinkstock

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