Background: Considerable research efforts have attempted to identify genes associated with alcoholism among adults, yet few studies have examined adolescents. Identifying genes associated with alcohol misuse in youth is important given that the relative contribution of genetic and environmental influences on alcoholism varies across development. The purpose of this study was to examine the association between a polymorphism of the μ-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) and alcohol misuse in a sample of youth and to test whether heightened sensitivity to the reinforcing effects of alcohol mediated this relationship.
Methods: Adolescents (n = 187; mean age = 15.4 years; 47.6% female) were genotyped for A118G (rs1799971), a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) of the OPRM1 gene, and assessed for alcohol use disorder (AUD) diagnoses and other psychopathology. Alcohol misuse was also measured continuously to maximize detection of drinking problems in youth. Drinking motives were used to capture the extent to which youth consumed alcohol to enhance positive affect.
Results: AUD groups differed significantly in terms of allelic distributions of the A118G SNP, such that 51.9% of youth with an AUD carried at least one copy of the G allele compared to 16.3% of non-AUD controls. Those who carried the G allele endorsed drinking to enhance positive affect more strongly than those who were homozygous for the A allele and drinking to enhance positive affect mediated the association between OPRM1 and alcohol-related problems.
Conclusions: These data build on findings from adult studies and provide the first evidence that a polymorphism of the OPRM1 receptor gene is associated with the development of early-onset alcohol-related problems during adolescence, in part, by heightening sensitivity to the reinforcing effects of alcohol.