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REVIEW: The genetics of alcoholism: identifying specific genes through family studies


Howard J. Edenberg, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Indiana University School of Medicine, 635 Barnhill Drive, MS4063, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5122, USA. E-mail:


Alcoholism is a complex disorder with both genetic and environmental risk factors. Studies in humans have begun to elucidate the genetic underpinnings of the risk for alcoholism. Here we briefly review strategies for identifying individual genes in which variations affect the risk for alcoholism and related phenotypes, in the context of one large study that has successfully identified such genes. The Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) is a family-based study that has collected detailed phenotypic data on individuals in families with multiple alcoholic members. A genome-wide linkage approach led to the identification of chromosomal regions containing genes that influenced alcoholism risk and related phenotypes. Subsequently, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were genotyped in positional candidate genes located within the linked chromosomal regions, and analyzed for association with these phenotypes. Using this sequential approach, COGA has detected association with GABRA2, CHRM2 and ADH4; these associations have all been replicated by other researchers. COGA has detected association to additional genes including GABRG3, TAS2R16, SNCA, OPRK1 and PDYN, results that are awaiting confirmation. These successes demonstrate that genes contributing to the risk for alcoholism can be reliably identified using human subjects.