Washington University Study Finds Evidence for an Interaction Between Age at First Drink and Adult Dependency

January 19, 2010

Brain changes caused by drinking before age 15 could predispose adolescents to a lifetime of alcohol dependency a new study finds.

Researcher Arpana Agrawal of the Washington University School of Medicine, who has studied alcohol in twins, said that early drinking “may induce changes in the highly sensitive adolescent brain, which may also modify an individual’s subsequent genetic vulnerability to addiction. Agrawal said the findings should be used to discourage young people from experimenting with drinking early because such behavior might trigger an onset of alcohol abuse.

Risk for alcohol dependence symptoms increased with decreasing age at first drink. Heritable influences on alcohol dependence symptoms were considerably larger in those who reported an age at first drink prior to 13 years of age. In those with later onset of alcohol use, variance in alcohol dependence was largely attributable to nonshared environmental variance (and measurement error). This evidence for unmeasured gene A— measured environment interaction persisted even when controlling for the genetic influences that overlapped between age at first drink and alcohol dependence symptoms.

It was also found that the age of first alcohol use correlated with a higher number of alcohol dependency symptoms. Those who started drinking later in life were less likely to be dependent, the study found.

Conclusions: Early age at first drink may facilitate the expression of genes associated with vulnerability to alcohol dependence symptoms. This is important to consider, not only from a public health standpoint, but also in future genomic studies of alcohol dependence.

The research will be published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122600955/abstract .

SOURCE: Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center Resource Alert Summary – October 2009