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Young age at first drink may affect genes and risk for alcoholism
Date:9/18/2009

re 15 or younger when they started drinking tended to have a greater genetic risk for alcohol dependence. Some who were 16 or older before they took their first drink later became alcohol dependent, but their dependence was related more to environmental factors.

"We don't have actual gene expression data in this study, but we could hypothesize that exposure to early-onset drinking somehow modifies the developing brain," Agrawal says. "Particularly frequent or heavy early drinking may influence gene expression and contribute to more severe outcomes. Our research cannot prove that, but it's something that neuro-imaging and gene expression studies certainly should investigate."

Another possibility is that early drinking exposes adolescents to certain environment influences, such as their peer groups, that somehow enhance genetic influences that contribute to risk for alcohol dependence.

"Something about starting to drink at an early age puts young people at risk for later problems associated with drinking," Agrawal says. "We continue to investigate the mechanisms, but encouraging youth to delay their drinking debut may help."

"Some early-onset drinkers do not develop alcohol problems and some late-onset drinkers do we are working on why that is the case, but it is important to note that this is one risk factor among many and does not determine whether a person will, or will not, develop alcohol dependence," says Agrawal, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry. "But age at first drink is a well-known risk factor, and there have been two main hypotheses about why: One has been that common genetic and environmental factors contribute both to the risk for alcohol dependence and to the likelihood a person will be younger when consuming their first drink. A second hypothesis suggests starting to drink at a younger age exerts an influence on alcohol dependence that is independent of these shared factors. Our findings sugges
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Contact: Jim Dryden
jdryden@wustl.edu
314-286-0110
Washington University School of Medicine
Source:Eurekalert

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