In the UK, around 5,000 teenagers are admitted to hospital every year for alcohol-related reasons and binge drinking among young people has become commonplace. Now new research helps to explain why some teenagers are more prone to drinking alcohol than others.
The recent study carried out by King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) and published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides a detailed understanding of those processes of the brain that are involved in teenage alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and other addictive drugs activate the dopamine system in the brain which is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. The new study found that the RASGRF2 gene is a risk gene for alcohol abuse, however, the exact mechanism involved in this process has, until now, remained unknown.
Professor Gunter Schumann, the lead author of the study says: "People seek out situations which fulfil their sense of reward and make them happy, so if your brain is wired to find alcohol rewarding, you will seek it out. We now understand the chain of action: how our genes shape this function in our brains and how that, in turn, leads to human behaviour. We found that the RASGRF-2 gene plays a crucial role in controlling how alcohol stimulates the brain to release dopamine, and hence trigger the feeling of reward. So, if people have a genetic variation of the RASGRF-2 gene, alcohol gives them a stronger sense of reward, making them more likely to be heavy drinkers."
Teenage alcohol abuse is also linked to poor brain development, health problems in later life, risk taking behaviour (drunk driving, unsafe sex) and antisocial behaviour. It is therefore important to be able to identify the risk factors for early alcohol abuse.