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Gene may protect against alcoholism

Some people possess genetic characteristics that give them a low level of response to alcohol. That means they have relatively little reaction to booze and need a lot of drinks to begin feeling an effect. These people -- sometimes described as folks who can drink everyone else under the table -- are also more susceptible to developing alcohol addiction.

Now a gene that may influence the opposite response has been found. Researchers reported Tuesday that a variant of the gene CYP2E1 influences a person’s response to alcohol. But this gene variant causes people to react with high sensitivity to alcohol. A drink or two leaves them feeling inebriated. About 10% to 20% of the population are thought to carry this gene variant. Other research shows people who react strongly to alcohol are less likely to become alcoholics.

The study advances the understanding of why some people become addicted and others do not. But genes aren’t the whole story, said the lead author of the study Dr. Kirk Wilhelmsen, a professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Alcoholism is a very complex disease,” he said in a news release, “and there are lots of complicated reasons why people drink. This may be just one of the reasons.”

The CYP2E1 gene encodes an enzyme that can metabolize alcohol. Unlike other enzymes that metabolize alcohol that work in the liver, this gene works in the brain. The gene and others that influence alcohol metabolism, might be used in the future to give people, especially young people who have not yet started to drink, an idea of their odds of developing alcohol problems.

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The study was published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

-- Shari Roan / Los Angeles Times

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