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Study discovers gene that limits alcohol preference

Analysis of over 50 DNA studies, some of which were carried out in Finland, has culminated in the pinpointing of a gene that regulates the desire to drink alcohol. Tests on genetically-altered mice without a KLB gene showed the pathway influences alcohol intake, indicating a potential future reduction method.

Tyhjiä olut- ja viinapulloja kassissa.
Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

New research based on large-scale DNA research of over 105,000 light and heavy social drinkers in Europe, including samples in Finland, has zeroed in on a gene named KLB as an important regulator of alcohol consumption. 

For purposes of the study, heavy drinkers were classified as men that drank 21 bottles of beer or glasses of wine or more in a week, and women that drank 14. Light drinkers were men that drank between 14 and 21 portions weekly and women that drank 7 to 14.

The research did not focus on alcoholics or people with an addiction, as its purpose was to ascertain the drinking habits of the general populace that enjoys regular alcohol consumption.

KLB could help drinkers cut back

Anu Loukola from the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine says the most important finding of the research is the KLB gene, whose gene product β-Klotho has been observed to be necessary for the regulation of alcohol preference.

As the gene function is hard to study in humans, mice were genetically modified. Studies showed that mice without the KLB gene were drawn to alcohol more than mice with the gene, by a clear margin.

Researchers say the KLB gene basically sends a signal to the brain that no more alcohol is needed - the same kind of regulator that tells your brain that you’ve eaten enough sweets, for example. A lack of KLB indicates a faulty regulatory system. Scientists now believe that this new breakthrough could lead to the development of medicines that might help control alcohol use.

No miracle cure for alcoholism

Geneticist Loukola is not so optimistic that a ’miracle drug’ will be developed, however. She says it is likely that several genes work together, along with environmental factors, to influence alcohol use. She also recommends further study on very heavy alcohol users to confirm the results, as the relationship between alcohol and genes is very complex and poorly understood.

Excessive alcohol consumption is a major public health problem worldwide, causing more than 3 million deaths per year. A shift from heavy to moderate social drinking could generate many benefits, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a drop in high blood pressure and obesity.

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