Neurological Risk Factors of Alcohol Addiction
Written by Jade McNulty
Published on March 11, 2021
For some students, beer bottles are decorations sprinkled around the house, blending into the normal decor. Regardless if it’s found in their home, it’s surrounding the youth from wine bottles in grocery stores to drunk adults in television shows. While most have been aware of alcohol throughout their lives, a majority of students' first experience with alcohol is at social functions during their teenage years - specifically at college parties.
As established in my last blog, it is known that alcohol addiction is not a conscious choice. There are a multitude of neurological factors that play into addiction, and with new research, the specifics are coming to light. Certain gene sequences, emotional abuse, and childhood trauma are all prime factors in determining who is predisposed to have a higher chance of developing a crippling addiction to alcohol. Though these factors are linked to elements that occur at birth or during childhood, most come to light with exposure to alcohol. The coupling of access to alcohol and abuse inclination leads to a deadly match that students know well: addiction.
It is no surprise that genes play a role in addiction because they play a role in everything. There is a gene that codes hair color, and another that codes for predisposition to alcohol. Recently, it has been discovered that mutations within the gene CTNNA2 provide a risk for alcohol addiction, and this gene increases the risk of alcoholism in women on a nearly 2:1 basis compared to men. The specific proteins within the CTNNA2 gene are located on the cell surface and are entangled by adhesion to other cells or their surroundings within the myelinated axons of the brain (white matter). The variants within this gene provide a higher risk for individuals to develop an addiction to alcohol. In addition to addiction, mutations on this gene are a risk for numerous psychological disorders including depression and schizophrenia. The presence of this gene increases susceptibility to these disorders, but does not ensure the person will get this disease.
Abuse within the developmental stages of childhood can lead to a variety of negative appearances within the individual’s later life. The way humans are raised has a direct impact on their future, as seen in a multitude of disorders. Alcohol dependence is directly linked to emotional abuse during childhood, and childhood trauma is highly prevalent in treatment-seeking alcoholics. Maltreatment causes impulsivity which leads to reward-seeking, and similar to a reward, alcohol activates dopaminergic pathways, causing the feel-good neurotransmitter to spread throughout the body. Poorly treated individuals are drawn in by the immediate euphoric effects of alcohol and are less sensitive to the negative consequences.
As seen through both the genetic component and the impact of emotional abuse being risk factors for addiction, family history itself plays a big role in alcoholism. Genes are inherited from generation to generation, so if family members struggle with addiction, there’s a chance it could be passed down. Growing up in an alcoholic environment may lead to abuse or early access to means, which both can increase risk of addiction. Therefore, family history is a major inclination of alcohol addiction, as it may lead to alcoholism due to heredity and environmental factors.
Though these factors are out of personal control and addiction may seem helpless, it is important to note that the risks are not definite. Not everyone who has the gene or has had childhood trauma will become alcoholic. Genetic predisposition and abuse are both risk factors for addiction, but are not absolute and can have differing effects on individuals. The probability increases when coupled with access to alcohol, which includes a lot of college student functions. Everyone's experience with alcohol is different, and some may use it within healthy limitations, but it is important to note the astronomical adverse effects. The presence and accessibility of alcohol need to be more secure. One drink at a party can reroute a person’s entire life and send them on a slippery slope to addiction.