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Genes Reveal the Risk of Alcoholism

Alcoholism runs in families. But identifying genes for alcoholism is not an effective way of predicting the disease.

Most chronic illnesses result from a complex set of genes and the way they interact with a person's environment. And alcoholism is no exception. Marc Schuckit is a psychology professor at San Diego's VA Medical Center who has studied the genetics of alcoholism. He says genes for impulsivity and low sensitivity for alcohol contribute to the disease. But they're not the best predictors.

"I don't need to do genetic testing to know who's at high risk for alcoholism," he says. "All I have to know is their family history. And of course there are other factors as well. But if you're a son or daughter of an alcoholic, you have a four-fold increased risk for alcoholism."

Schuckit says genetic testing does hold promise for knowing what treatments or preventions will work for different people. Impulsivity, he says, is a characteristic found in people with a wide variety of addictions.