GW researcher links gene to binge drinking

It’s Saturday night and seven female students sit around the kitchen table in their third floor New Hall room. Equipped with a blender, a handle of Jose Cuervo and a bag of limes, they pound tequila shots while sipping frozen margaritas. Six drinks later, they’re ready to go out.

GW alumnus and research fellow Aryeh Herman took a strong interest in this type of drinking and performed a study last year, recently published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, the official journal of the Medical Council on Alcohol. After surveying nearly 300 students to collect data, Herman linked binge drinking to a specific gene in the human body.

“There have been a lot of studies that have addressed binge drinking, but this was the first to evaluate its biological causes,” Herman said. He said his study is the only that has successfully linked binge drinking to a gene.

Herman and his team administered a 22-page College Alcohol Survey, which asked students to identify their reasons for drinking. It contained questions such as “On how many occasions did you drink to get drunk in the past 30 days?” The researchers also administered a personality inventory categorizing five personality traits and collected saliva samples.

Working closely with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Awareness, Herman’s research team collected data on the Foggy Bottom campus once each week during the academic year, using GW student volunteers as subjects. Herman said all data was random and anonymous so researchers “(didn’t) have a clue who participated.

The group’s findings confirmed a hypothesis that individuals possessing a particular gene “engage in more frequent binge drinking.”

Herman linked binge drinking to a specific type of serotonin transporter gene.

The serotonin gene attaches to a separate region on the chromosome, which can either be long or short for different people. People with two short genes have less serotonin activity and are more prone to significantly higher levels of anxiety, often connected to binge drinking.

Herman’s experiment was the first to biologically link the serotonin transporter to binge drinking, but past studies have suggested that genetics may play a role in drinking habits.

Herman said his study does not touch on alcoholism, but he hopes to use his results to address it in the future.

“Alcoholism is a broad psychological and pathological disorder which involves a lot of factors,” Herman said. “Binge behavior is a specific aspect, which is related to anxiety.”

Dan Lieberman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, said there may have been errors with Herman’s study and that more work must be done. Lieberman said the study may have linked binge drinking with anxiety instead of isolating a binge-drinking gene.

“A lot of genetic studies are very preliminary,” he said. “They need to be replicated many times because there can be accidents.”

Herman said further research is needed to verify the relationship between the gene and binge drinking. He said he is currently trying to contact other universities, such as the University of Wisconsin – which has different student demographics – to set up a second study.

“I hope to replicate this exact study elsewhere,” Herman said. “If the results are found in another institution, the biological cause of binge drinking will be confirmed.”

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