alcoholism and genetics


Alcoholism is a complex disease with genetic factors intertwining with environmental influences to shape both the initial development of the disease and also its future course. Scientific evidence points to the strong genetic basis for alcoholism as a condition for many years. Many scientists in the field of research on alcoholism and alcohol use disorders believe that alcoholism may be a set of similar syndromes rather than a single discrete illness. The genetic factors are complex. There is no “single gene” that determines whether or not someone will go on to develop alcoholism. Rather it is a complex web of inheritance patterns. Certain ethnic groups are also more prone to develop alcohol use disorders and others are protected from it. 

Complex environmental influences play a part in how the genetic factors express themselves. No one inherits a certainty that they will develop alcoholism. It is more accurate to say that people inherit a strong vulnerability to the condition. If their brain never encounters alcohol or another addictive drug, then they cannot develop the disease. 

In our world today, the possibility of never being exposed to alcohol or the peer pressure to drink is fairly remote for most young people. In the United States, there is a lot of peer pressure both overt and more subtle and covert pressures, both in the high school and college years. Better education of our young people about the risks of developing addiction, a devastating , lifelong, chronic, relapsing illness if they experiment with drugs and alcohol, especially if they do have a family history of any addictive illness, would go a long way to reduce the numbers of young people developing an addiction of any type. Patterns of drinking among adults and subliminal and societal messages about alcohol also play a significant role in shaping the behaviors of the next generation and their relationship to alcohol. There are cultures such as France and Italy where wine is served at the table, wine at almost every meal, children may be allowed to taste a sip of wine on occasion, yet the rates of alcoholism are among the lowest in the world. There are also societies where religious or other taboos allow young people to grow up without ever tasting alcohol. However, alcoholism exists in almost every society across the globe. 

How can we best inoculate our children from never developing this devastating disease? There is no one answer. This week, Dr. Victor Hesselbrock, an internationally renowned research scientist in the field of the genetics of alcoholism will be discussing this complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors that lead to the development of alcoholism.


Surita Rao, M.D. is the physician leader of the Behavioral Health Services at Saint Francis Care and host of the show, Mental Health with Dr. Surita Rao on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness channel. She completed medical school at Bankura Sammilani Medical College in India and did her psychiatry residency training at St.Vincent’s Hospital in Staten Island, New York and the Yale University School of Medicine. She did her addiction psychiatry fellowship at the Yale University School of Medicine. She has been on the faculty at both Yale and Emory Universities. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor with the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Her clinical work has focused on addiction psychiatry, including both substance use disorders and dual diagnosis issues. She has worked with impaired physicians and other health care professionals. Upon completing her fellowship training, she worked as the Medical Director of the methadone maintenance clinics at Yale University School of Medicine. She has been the Chair of Behavioral Health at Saint Francis since 2002 and is the President of the Saint Francis Behavioral Health Group. Dr. Rao is on the Board of Directors for the American Society of Addiction Medicine and is co-chair of their national membership committee. She is also on the Executive Committee of the Connecticut Chapter. Dr. Rao is chair of the physicians’ health committee at Saint Francis. She also serves on the Board of the Saint Francis Foundation and has been appointed as a Corporator for Saint Francis Care. –