Researchers and addiction specialists are well-aware that children who grow up in households heavily affected by family conflict have heightened chances of developing significant substance problems during adolescence. Genetic inheritance also meaningfully impacts the overall risks for teen substance problems. In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Addiction, a team of U.S. researchers compared the relative impact that two factors have on teenagers’ risks for problematic alcohol use: family conflict and variations in a specific gene common to all human beings known as the 5-HTTLPR gene.
Genetics And Alcohol Problems
All human beings have genetically influenced risks for developing problematic patterns of alcohol intake and eventually qualifying for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. In some cases, genetic inheritance makes a person more likely to drink in risky ways and subsequently develop alcohol use disorder symptoms. In other cases, genetic influences make a person less likely to drink in risky ways or develop diagnosable alcohol problems.
However, the connection between genetics and alcohol-related risk is not straightforward. Instead of a simple scenario where just one or two genes determine a person’s level of risk exposure, reality presents us with an interlocking series of genetic influences, some of which operate on their own and some of which produce their effects in combination with other gene-related factors.
In addition, genetic influences on alcohol use are subsequently influenced and modified by the experiences that human beings have as they grow older over time, especially during the earlier phases of life. All told, this situation means that researchers must carefully consider the potential alcohol use disorder-related factors present in any single person or any single population group.
Family Conflict And Alcohol Problems
Family conflict is a general term for any family dynamic that favors confrontation and lack of cohesion over communication and mutually beneficial action. Significant conflicts can occur between parents, between a parent and child, between siblings or between members of a nuclear family unit and members of the extended family unit.
Whatever its particular source, family conflict destabilizes daily home life for at least some family members and contributes substantially to a general atmosphere of stress, mistrust and insecurity. Evidence gathered from a range of research efforts indicates that the presence of serious conflict within a family unit substantially increases the odds that any given child will go on to develop a problematic pattern of alcohol use or some other form of substance use. Broadly speaking, the risks for problematic consumption rise or fall in a more or less direct relationship with the level of damaging conflict found within the family unit.
Genetics And Family Conflict
In the study published in Addiction, researchers from Syracuse University, the State University of New York, Brown University and Brown-affiliated Miriam Hospital used assessments of teenagers located in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom to determine the relative impact that family conflict and variations in the 5-HTTLPR gene have on the risks for developing problematic patterns of alcohol intake during adolescence. The 5-HTTLPR gene helps regulate the body’s levels of serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical known for, among other things, its role in influencing the odds of developing certain types of behavioral problems and mental health issues.
A total of 5,091 teenagers took part in the project: An older group of 175 teenagers were from the U.S., while a much larger group of younger teens resided in various parts of the United Kingdom. All of the participants underwent two phases of testing that included genetic sampling and self-reported estimates of family conflict exposure, level of involvement in alcohol use, frequency of drunkenness, frequency of heavy drinking and the largest amount of alcohol consumed at any one time.
The researchers found that some of the teenagers enrolled in the study had a version of the 5-HTTLPR gene that produced a normal amount of serotonin, while others had a version of the gene that produced an unusually low amount of serotonin. They concluded that, after being exposed to relatively high amounts of family conflict during childhood, the teens with the low-output version of the gene had a substantially higher chance of falling into a problematic pattern of alcohol intake. In line with this finding, they also concluded that family conflict and inherited variations in the 5-HTTLPR gene have an interactive or combined effect on the risks for teen alcohol abuse.