26 Sep Dad’s Alcoholism before Conception May Affect Son’s Drinking Habits
A new study has indicated that paternal drinking may impact a son’s drinking habits even before he is conceived. The researchers used mice for the study, but the findings still come as a shock to many in the field, including the authors themselves. The study showed that a dad’s drinking prior to conception could actually lead to reduced drinking in later life among his sons, but not his daughters. There are many questions raised by the study, but an important point it helps to drive home is that environmental factors are crucial when it comes to the risk of addiction, underlining the current uncertainty about the precise genetics of alcohol dependence and how parents’ previous behavior may have a role to play.
Genetics and Alcoholism
There is a well-known genetic component to alcoholism. It’s been found that inheritance particularly plays a role in the likelihood of developing an alcohol problem from father to son, but researchers haven’t been able to identify many specific variants of genes central to the process. More importantly, genetic influence is only responsible for part of the risk, and environmental factors (things the individual is exposed to, especially in early life) are known to play a crucial role.
Environmental factors also influence the expression of the genes themselves, meaning that the function of the gene is altered based on environmental cues. This is known as “epigenetics,” and is the main focus of the new study, which looked at whether previous exposure to alcohol led to changes in the father’s gene expression that could influence his sons and daughters.
The Study: Exposing Male Mice to Alcohol Vapors
The researchers tested the idea using mice. Male mice were split into two groups, one of which was exposed to alcohol vapors (intermittently) for five weeks while the other breathed ordinary air. The resulting blood alcohol level for the exposed mice was slightly higher than the legal driving limit in humans, and after the five-week period the mice were mated with females who hadn’t been exposed to alcohol. The researchers then assessed the offspring’s alcohol consumption when given the option and their sensitivity to alcohol’s effects and investigated the genetic alterations that occurred.
Father’s Drinking Affects Sons but Not Daughters
Lead author Dr. Andrey Finegersh said, “We suspected that the offspring of alcohol exposed sires would have an enhanced taste for alcohol, which seems to be the pattern for humans.” However, that was not what they found. Instead, the male offspring of the alcohol-exposed mice drank less alcohol when it was made available, and were also more likely to choose water instead when presented with both options. When they did drink, they were more susceptible to the effects on motor coordination and anxiety reduction than the offspring of the non-exposed males. Additionally, the researchers found effects on the father’s genes and their expression which are passed on to their offspring, both male and female.
Dr. Finegersh explained that, “Whether the unexpected reduction in alcohol drinking that was observed is due to differences between species or the specific drinking model that was tested is unclear.”
Despite the core unexpected result, the most puzzling element is that the genetic changes didn’t affect the daughters’ drinking behavior. This is one of the areas for future research identified by the authors, but the team will also be investigating whether other models—like a binge drinking model—show similar changes, as well as trying to pin down the mechanism for the genetic changes.
What Does It All Mean? Does Dad Drinking Make Kids Less Likely To?
There are many problems with simply extrapolating this finding to human addiction, but the biggest is obviously the species barrier. While certain animals provide a good approximation of the relevant aspects of human behavior and genetics, we can’t just assume that what’s true for a mouse or rat is also true for humans. Additionally, there are numerous negative impacts of parental alcoholism on children after they’ve been born, so even if the same effect does take place in humans, there are still plenty of reasons to avoid drinking as a parent.
The genetics of alcoholism don’t seem as linear and straightforward as we might hope, but the new finding provides evidence that parental behavior can shape children’s behavior before they even really exist in any meaningful sense of the word. In mice, the result may be reduced drinking in sons, but the underlying mechanism could still have much more negative results in humans, or could also increase binge-drinking or other drinking behavior in later life. On the whole, it’s still not a good idea for a dad-to-be to start drinking before trying for a baby. He has his own health and the health of his child to consider.
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