alcohol-dependenceScience has long struggled to determine who may develop a dependence to alcohol and who will not, based off of genetic markers. While it is known that environment plays a huge part in addiction, having a better understanding of the genetic link will help science develop better and more effective methods for treating the disease.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine have found a “biological clue” that may be responsible for why some people develop a dependence to alcohol, Science Daily reports. The study was led by Jill C. Bettinger, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine.

“There are few and inadequate pharmacological treatments to help people who want to stop drinking, because this is a terrifically difficult human genetics problem,” said Bettinger, Ph.D. “If we can better understand the molecular effects of alcohol, we can design more rational treatments and even warn people who are more susceptible to developing a dependence.”

The research focused on a protein complex – called switching defective/sucrose nonfermenting (SWI/SNF). Using tiny roundworms, the researchers observed their exposure to ethanol under microscopes, according to the article. They looked at the tiny worm’s initial sensitivity to the alcohol and how their tolerance changed based on which genes were expressed within the SWI/SNF complex.

In fact, humans and worms have a similar genetic makeup, which led Bettinger to Brien P. Riley, Ph.D., associate professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU. Riley found that the natural genetic variations in the SWI/SNF complex important to a worm’s development of alcohol tolerance was also associated with alcohol dependence in humans, the article reports.

“The identification of genes that are critical in the development of tolerance in model systems such as worms will lead to future progress in understanding human dependence on alcohol,” Riley said. “If the same effects are seen in worms, then it allows us to form and test a functional hypothesis about what kinds of changes lead to increased dependence risk in humans.”

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.