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When Others Drink, Your Genes May Lead You to Join Them

en genetics and reactions to environmental circumstances," Galanter said.

It's not clear why this particular version of the dopamine receptor might trigger increased responsiveness to others' drinking, Larsen said, although some researchers have speculated that people with this receptor are less sensitive to dopamine's actions and so are likely to drink more to try to feel its pleasurable effects.

The authors also noted that seeing others drink lightly didn't boost the urge to drink more in those with the receptor; only witnessing heavy drinking triggered the desire.

While emphasizing that the results are preliminary and need replication, the authors said the study setup simulated a real-life situation, similar to that faced in a bar, restaurant or at a party.

Individuals with this genetic propensity may have to avoid many social drinking situations if they wish to curb their own alcohol intake, Larsen said.

"If you really don't want to drink or you know that it is difficult for you to refrain from drinking, maybe partly because of a genetic predisposition, then you should stay out of alcohol contexts, because these cues are so strong," Larsen said.

Social psychologist Henry Wechsler, of the Harvard School of Public Health, cautioned that a couple of aspects of the experiment may have influenced the results, however. The drinks offered during the study were free, but "studies have shown that price has a significant effect on drinking behavior," he said.

Also, it's possible that the participants' behavior was altered because they thought of themselves as being under the watch of "responsible scientists," he said. "They may consider themselves protected from harms associated with heavy drinking."

More information

There's more on problem drinking at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.


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