Researcher discovers gene mutation that contributes to addiction

August 16, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY - In the field of addiction research, one question looms large: Why do some people face a higher risk than others for alcoholism and drug abuse? A researcher at the OU College of Medicine, William R. Lovallo, Ph.D., recently published one of the field's few studies focused on how a person's genes contribute to addiction. Lovallo's research showed that a tiny genetic mutation can put people at higher risk for alcohol or drug addiction. His research was published in the world's leading journal on alcoholism, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Many people ask whether addiction is caused by person's genes or their family environment. The short answer is that it's both. However, Lovallo's research zeroes in on specific gene and how it responds to a person's environment.

COMT is the name of a gene that helps the body manage dopamine, a chemical that is released when a person drinks alcohol or takes a drug like amphetamine. Lovallo's research focused on a small mutation of COMT. What he discovered demonstrates the interplay between a person's genetic makeup and adversity during childhood. People with this mutation of the COMT gene are more vulnerable to the effects of stress in their early lives, such as divorce or emotionally distant parents. That heightened vulnerability often leads to consumption of alcohol and drugs younger than age 15, which is one of the biggest independent predictors of addiction.

"Early-life adversity doesn't make everyone an alcoholic," Lovallo said. "But this study showed that people with this genetic mutation are going to have a higher risk for addiction when they had a stressful life growing up."

Because the COMT gene is involved with how well dopamine works in the brain, the behavior of the genetic mutation is especially revealing.

"This one random mutation makes a difference in how the COMT gene works fine in one person but not as well in another person," Lovallo said. "There is no such thing as a gene for addiction, but there are genes that respond to our environment in ways that put us at risk. You have to have the right combination to develop the risk factors."

Lovallo's discovery is a top achievement in his 20 years of well-funded research in this area. As a senior research career scientist at the VA Medical Center, he has conducted studies on veterans with alcohol addiction. However, those studies, like many others, concentrated on people after they became addicted to a substance. He knew he wanted to shift his research toward understanding the causes of addiction and how to prevent it.

"Many of us know people who drink alcohol moderately and never have any problems. And we know people who drink a little and then go down the path toward alcoholism," he said. "What's the difference between going down that path and not going down that path? Now we have a better understanding that it's not just exposure to alcohol or drugs that leads to problems; there is a genetic component.

"Addiction is a real health problem, and to be making progress toward understanding it is one of the most exciting and worthwhile things I've ever done," he said.
-end-
Lovallo, senior author on the study, is also a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the OU College of Medicine. He published the research paper in collaboration with several other OU colleagues: Andrew J. Cohoon, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Kristen H. Sorocco, Ph.D., from the Department of Geriatric Medicine; and Andrea S. Vincent, Ph.D., director of the Cognitive Science Research Center on the Norman campus. They had other collaborators at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

OU COLLEGE OF MEDICINE


Founded in 1910, the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine trains the next generation of healthcare professionals. With campuses in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the College of Medicine offers the state's only Doctor of Medicine degree program and a nationally competitive Physician Assistant program. For more information, visit oumedicine.com/collegeofmedicine.

OU MEDICINE

OU Medicine -- along with its academic partner, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center -- is the state's only comprehensive academic health system of hospitals, clinics and centers of excellence. With 11,000 employees and more than 1,300 physicians and advanced practice providers, OU Medicine is home to Oklahoma's largest physician network with a complete range of specialty care. OU Medicine serves Oklahoma and the region with the state's only freestanding children's hospital, the only National Cancer Institute-Designated Stephenson Cancer Center and Oklahoma's flagship hospital, which serves as the state's only Level 1 trauma center. OU Medicine's mission is to lead healthcare in patient care, education and research. To learn more, visit oumedicine.com.

University of Oklahoma

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.