Alcoholism is a very serious disease that affects about 1 out of 14 Americans.1 Unfortunately, children of alcoholics are more likely to develop alcoholism. Environmental factors, such as influence from one’s peers or community, can also promote alcoholism. If a child is born from parents that are alcoholics and is raised in an environment that promotes alcohol consumption, this can be the ultimate maelstrom to promote the development of alcoholism. Since alcoholics are predisposed to alcoholism from birth and American culture largely promotes drinking, society is beginning to regard alcoholism as a serious disease, rather than dismissing the fact that alcoholics find it extremely hard to quit drinking.
Alcoholism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a chronic disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction.2” The children of alcoholics inherit this disease, just as they inherit eye color or baldness from their parents. However, inheriting alcoholism is only half of the problem, as environmental factors, such as social acceptance or alcohol availability, play just as an important role of developing alcoholism. This role that the environment plays on developing alcoholism, or other behaviors and mental diseases in general, is an emerging field of research, which scientists have coined the term, “epigenetics.”
In order to properly understand the epigenetics of alcoholism, we first have to understand the role of DNA in the body. Deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA, is the blueprint responsible for making all humans unique. The role of DNA is vast, as it contains specific information that can perform different jobs, from dictating the body’s development, to directing functions that maintain the body in a healthy state. DNA is tightly wound-up by structures called histones, which look like beads (histones) on a string (DNA). DNA can get “locked” into place by histones, which can turn off specific functions the DNA carries out in the cells of our bodies. Wound up DNA is like the headphones when pulled from a pocket. If the headphones are tightly wound up, it is hard to unwind them to listen to music. Just like headphones, tightly wound DNA is unable to make chemical messengers that are important to our body’s functions.
Proteins, which are made from the blueprint of DNA, are extremely important in conducting tasks that are necessary for the body to function normally. Our body is constantly making new protein, which deliver messages to its cells so they can perform certain functions. For example, there are certain proteins produced in the brain that have roles in regulating different functions, from memory formation to feelings of anxiety.3 Forming different kinds of protein is important for our bodies to function correctly and this is vastly altered by the consumption of alcohol. Just like you cannot listen to music with wound-up headphones, your DNA cannot produce proteins if it is wound-up by histones.
Studies have shown that in the brain of an alcoholic, withdrawal from alcohol tightly winds up the DNA and decreases protein production. One of the many side effects of alcohol withdrawal is an increased sense of anxiety, due to the lack of a certain protein called “CREB” being produced to control an individual’s anxiety levels.3 When an alcoholic consumes alcohol, the DNA is allowed to unwrap in a more relaxed state and decreases their anxiety by continuing with acceptable protein production. The implications of these studies in alcohol dependence are vastly important and could explain why alcoholics become increasingly dependent the more they drink.
Research from several institutions has also shown that the consumption of alcohol causes the death of brain cells.5 When alcohol enters the body’s bloodstream, it travels to the brain and the production of the same protein as mention previously, “CREB,” that regulates the immune system is inhibited. This causes increased inflammation in the brain and the body’s innate defenses that usually kill bacteria or viruses instead turn on the body’s brain cells to kill them. The killing of these brain cells can affect many different behaviors, like increasing the tendency of anger or decreasing the formation and retention of memories. Fortunately, when an alcoholic abstains from consuming alcohol, their brain can regenerate the brain cells they have lost.5
Alcohol has extremely damaging effects on the liver of an alcoholic. When an alcoholic consumes alcohol, the alcohol shuts off a mechanism in the body that keeps the DNA of the liver organized. Chronic exposure of alcohol that turns off this pathway can scramble liver DNA to a hazardous degree. The scrambled DNA causes problems by not making proteins necessary for clearing blood toxins. This decrease in protein production means that the liver has to work harder to clean the blood and causes liver failure from overworking itself.
Alcohol doesn’t only affect the drinker, but it can also have effects on their offspring- even before conception by altering the DNA of the sperm. Furthermore, scientists have found that both long-term and short-term use of alcohol can cause similar side effects. With altered DNA, the developmental blueprint of the offspring of alcoholics is tainted and certain proteins necessary for development are under-produced. This alteration in the DNA blueprint and protein production could actually affect the offspring of the alcoholic that has not even been conceived. Since we inherit half of our DNA from our mother and the other half from our father, half of the future child’s DNA will be altered. This has significant implications in our society because in two-thirds of unplanned pregnancies in America, the woman was under the effects of alcohol.6 Scientists have found that males with a history of long-term alcohol abuse have significantly underweight children, which can cause adverse effects on their child’s development.7 A similar study has shown that the offspring of alcoholics are hyper-responsive to the effects of alcohol, which could lead to anxiety reduction and impeded motor control.8
In terms of short-term alcohol use, studies have suggested that fathers who drink alcohol before conceiving have offspring that are underweight. Furthermore, these same offspring display slower processing in developmental milestones and more frequent aggressive behaviors.9 Shockingly, these results demonstrate that drinking before sex could cause a harmful alteration in the development of the drinker’s offspring. It is common knowledge that chronic alcohol exposure causes harmful effects, but these recent studies are beginning to shine new light on how harmful alcohol’s affects are, even if it is only short-term exposure.
Scientists have just begun to scrape the surface of understanding the mechanism of alcohol’s epigenetic effects, due to this field of research being quite new. In the future, we may be able to treat alcohol addiction and the effects displayed by it. Recent research has found that treatment with a drug that relaxes and organizes the DNA in lab animals reversed the onset of rapid alcohol tolerance and feelings of anxiety.10 The future of discovering new treatments for alcoholism is encouraging and scientists are getting closer to a cure for alcoholism as new discoveries are made.
As you can see, the effects of alcoholism on the drinker can be detrimentally dangerous not only to the drinker, but also their children. While we have known long-term alcohol consumption can cause dangerous side effects, scientists are now discovering that consuming alcohol directly before conception could be just as dangerous. The field of epigenetics is largely in its infancy, where there is much more research to be uncovered. Taken together, the information presented in this paper and future research of the epigenetics of alcoholism, are pointing to a societal warning to all future parents about the jeopardies of conceiving a child while under the influence of alcohol. Fortunately, the wealth of information scientists uncover is of paramount importance to the prevention, and possibly the cure, of the harmful effects of high alcohol consumption on the drinker and their future children.
1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (2015, March). Retrieved from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
2. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alcoholism
3. Starkman BG, Sakharkar AJ, Pandey SC. Epigenetics-beyond the genome in alcoholism. Alcohol Res.2012;34(3):293–305.
4. Grisham, J. (2014, October 14). What Is Epigenetics? Retrieved from https://www.mskcc.org/blog/what-epigenetics
5. Crews, F.T., and Nixon, K. Mechanisms of neurodegeneration and regeneration in alcoholism. Alcohol and Alcoholism 44:115–127, 2009
6. Edwards, D. (2005). The Truth About Alcohol and Sex. Retrieved from http://www.valueoptions.com/spotlight_YIW/pdfs/articles/The_Truth_About_Alcohol_and_Sex.pdf
7. Bielawski DM, Zaher FM, Svinarich DM, Abel EL. Paternal alcohol exposure affects sperm cytosine methyltransferase messenger RNA levels. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2002; 26 (3): 347–351.
8. Finegersh A, Homanics GE, Paternal Alcohol Exposure Reduces Alcohol Drinking and Increases Behavioral Sensitivity to Alcohol Selectively in Male Offspring. PLOS ONE. 2014; 9 (6): 1-11
9. Meek LR, Myren K, Sturm J, Burau D. Acute paternal alcohol use affects offspring development and adult behavior. Physiol Behav. 2007; 91 (1):154–160. 30.
10. Pandey, S.C.; Ugale, R.; Zhang, H.; et al. Brain chromatin remodeling: A novel mechanism of alcoholism. Journal of Neuroscience 28:3729–3737, 2008a.