Developmental Trajectory and Environmental Moderation of the Effect of ALDH2 Polymorphism on Alcohol Use


Reprint requests: Daniel E. Irons, MA, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, 75 East River Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455; Tel.: 612-481-2133; Fax: 612-626-2079; E-mail:



In the aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) gene, the ALDH2*2 allele, prevalent in East Asian populations, encodes an enzyme with severely reduced activity, thereby disrupting the normal metabolism of alcohol. Possession of the ALDH2*2 allele has been repeatedly shown to be associated with lower risk for alcohol dependence and reduced alcohol use. However, relatively few studies have considered whether the magnitude of the effect of ALDH2 polymorphism upon drinking is related to developmental stage or varies by environmental context.


In a longitudinally assessed sample of 356 adopted adolescents and young adults of East Asian descent, we examined the progression over time of the relationship between ALDH2 genotype and multiple measures of drinking behavior. We also sought to determine whether the environmental influences of nonbiological parent and elder sibling alcohol use and misuse, as well as deviant peer behavior, moderated the effect of ALDH2 genotype upon alcohol use.


Across all measures of alcohol use, the association between ALDH2*2 allele possession and reduced drinking went from negligible to moderate between mid-adolescence and early adulthood. A combined index of adoptive parent alcohol use and misuse consistently moderated the protective effect of the ALDH2*2 allele across the measures of quantity and frequency of alcohol use, and symptomology, such that high parental alcohol use and misuse reduced the protective effect of the ALDH2*2 allele, while low parental alcohol use and misuse enhanced the effect of the allele. Neither a combined index of elder sibling alcohol use and misuse, nor deviant peer behavior was consistently related to the effect of ALDH2 genotype.


The protective effect of the ALDH2*2 allele increases over the course of adolescence and young adulthood and is modified by the environmental influence of parental alcohol use and misuse. As such, ALDH2 provides a model system for exploring the nature of gene–environment interplay across development.