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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

Research Points to Test for Alcoholism Risk

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March 22, 2000 (New York) -- Researchers have shown that a blood test for a substance in the body called beta-endorphin done after drinking alcohol may indicate who has a genetic risk for developing alcoholism. The results support a growing body of evidence that when drinking, alcoholics have enhanced stimulation in certain parts of their brain's chemical system. The research appears in the March issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Lead author of the study, Janice C. Froehlich, PhD, says she is often asked why a person would want to know if they were at increased risk of alcoholism. "The question of whether or not you'd want to be tested for alcoholism is the same essentially as whether you'd want to be tested for any other disease. ... With alcoholism, the individual actually has a chance to prevent the development of the disease by staying away from alcohol. ... [Knowing their risk] gives the individual more freedom and more control over their own destiny than would a test for diabetes or cancer." Froehlich is professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

"We know that a large proportion of the risk for alcoholism is genetic rather than environmental. The question becomes, 'What do you inherit when you inherit a predisposition to drink alcohol?'" Froehlich tells WebMD. She explains that researchers have been trying to determine various bodily responses to alcohol in order to identify what leads to the development of alcoholism.

Froehlich explains that beta-endorphin is released in response to drinking alcohol. It acts like morphine to produce feelings of well-being and euphoria. "The current thought is that release of [beta-endorphin] during alcohol drinking may contribute to the high you get from alcohol, particularly right after you drink," says Froehlich.

Blood levels of beta-endorphin were tested in 88 pairs of twins. The results showed that beta-endorphin levels were strongly inherited. That is, the responses of identical twin pairs were much more similar than the responses of fraternal twin pairs

"We wouldn't suggest that people run out and get blood tests of their beta-endorphin response to alcohol yet," says Froehlich. She suggests that it may be used as part of a battery of tests that could help identify those individuals at risk for developing alcoholism. "If we could start early intervention programs and counseling, that might serve to decrease the probability that those individuals would become addicted to alcohol."

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