A combination of genetic factors can strongly influence the odds that any given person will develop a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse/alcoholism). Some of these factors increase risks, while others decrease them.
In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from several U.S. universities sought to determine if widespread alcohol consumption among a teenager’s close peers can override the protections against diagnosable alcohol problems normally provided by a genetically inherited protein in the human body called ADH1B.
Alcohol, Genetics And ADH1B
Roughly half of any given person’s lifetime risks for serious alcohol problems are gene-related, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports. The remainder of each person’s risk profile involves post-birth factors encountered in the surrounding environment, especially in early life. All told, dozens of genes influence the odds for developing alcohol use disorder, either on their own or in complex combinations with other genes in the human body. Researchers and doctors only partially understand the potential interactions between the protective and endangering genetic factors associated with alcohol intake.
ADH1B is a genetically inherited version of a protein (called an enzyme) that helps determine how quickly the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol. Compared to people without this variation of the alcohol processing enzyme, people with ADH1B feel the unpleasant effects of alcohol intake (such as nausea and an accelerated heartbeat) relatively quickly. In practical terms, people who react to alcohol in this way are less likely to drink in large amounts than people who don’t react so negatively. This means that, normally, a person who inherits ADH1B from his or her parents has reduced alcohol use disorder risks.
Peer Pressure And Alcohol
Peer pressure can substantially influence the odds that any particular individual will drink alcohol at all or drink alcohol in dangerous amounts. Some of this pressure takes direct form and includes offers or enticements from others to take a drink or drink heavily.
However, peer pressure can also take an indirect form and encourage drinking by exposing the individual to a social environment in which alcohol consumption is an accepted norm. Some people have a firmly established belief in their ability to control their alcohol intake levels, and are therefore generally less susceptible to alcohol-related peer pressure.
However, other people don’t firmly believe in their control over their alcohol-using behaviors and therefore generally have an increased level of susceptibility to such peer pressure.
Can Peer Influence Trump Genetics?
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Washington University, Indiana University, the University of Connecticut and several other educational institutions used an examination of 1,550 African American and European American teenagers below the age of 18 to determine if the influences of a close, alcohol-consuming peer can degrade some of the protection against alcohol problems normally provided by ADH1B.
All of these participants were involved in a long-term, federal project called the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism. For each individual, the researchers compared results obtained from this project to the age at which an episode of drunkenness first occurred, as well as to the age at which any one of the 11 potential symptoms of alcohol use disorder first appeared. The researchers also looked at the number of alcohol-consuming peers in each individual’s inner circle of friends.
The researchers concluded that the presence of ADH1B helped reduce any given study participant’s odds of getting drunk at an early age, as well as any given participant’s odds of developing a diagnosable alcohol use disorder symptom.
However, the researchers also concluded that teenagers with ADH1B who also have a lot of alcohol consumers in their inner circle of friends are unusually likely to get drunk at an early age and develop at least one symptom of alcohol abuse/alcoholism. Among those teens with a high concentration of alcohol-using close peers, the protective genetic effects of ADH1B are largely overridden.
The study’s authors believe their findings highlight the impact that post-birth environmental factors can have on the genetic risks for serious alcohol problems. In particular, they note the apparent importance of the interaction of genetics and environment in teenagers who experiment with drinking.
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