Research Points to Test for Alcoholism Risk
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
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
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."
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
"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.