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Research Points to Test for Alcoholism Risk

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Christina Gianoulakis, PhD, a researcher in this area from McGill University, agrees that beta-endorphin may prove to be a marker for vulnerability to alcoholism but also sees it as one of many tests that should be used.

"At the present time, my opinion is that there is not a single marker than can be used to diagnose people who could develop alcoholism in the future," Gianoulakis tells WebMD. She was not involved in the study.

When asked for his opinion of the Froehlich paper, Gary Wand, MD, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, says the study "comes close to being the last nail in the coffin in testing whether [this system] really creates a vulnerability to alcoholism and is involved in heavy alcohol drinking.

"I'm not that interested in the use of beta-endorphin as a marker. We already know, just by taking a history, that the children of alcoholics have between a four- and tenfold risk of developing alcoholism. That's enough of a marker for me to say we should be counseling children of alcoholics and saying that even if you carry some genetic baggage for alcoholism, it's not a fait accompli that you will become alcoholic," says Wand.

Wand believes the power of the findings concerning beta-endorphin lies in its potential to increase the understanding the mechanisms behind alcoholism. He says this study should provoke the government and pharmaceutical companies to pursue drug development to treat alcoholism through the beta-endorphin pathway.

Vital Information:

  • Drinking alcohol triggers the release of a substance called beta-endorphin, which produces feelings of well-being. Researchers think this chemical activity may contribute to the high that drinkers feel from using alcohol.
  • After studying identical and fraternal twins, researchers report one's beta-endorphin response is inherited and may identify people at increased risk of alcoholism.
  • Observers note the study tells more about how the body reacts to alcohol. But beta-endorphins don't tell the whole story about one's risk of alcoholism, and simply asking patients about the disease in their family is an effective way to find people at increased risk.
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