Information regarding a study on the genetics of alcoholism appeared in Science Now on Aug. 21, showing for the first time that the same genes responsible for alcoholism could have a role to play in eating disorders as well. Previously, both alcoholism as well as binging and purging behaviors were thought to all be genetically based, but this new research indicates that they may in fact be caused by the same genes.
The research emanated from Washington University School of Medicine, led by Dr. Melissa Munn-Chernoff and her colleagues, and will appear in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol & Drugs. Dr. Munn-Chernoff delved into this topic due to the extant literature showing that women who binged and purged were more likely to also exhibit alcohol dependence than women who did not.
Following a cohort of almost 6,000 adult identical and fraternal twins in Australia, the researchers were able to gather information about alcohol use and eating habits from twins who shared complete DNA (identical twins) as well as twins who shared half their DNA (fraternal twins). From these resulting data, Munn-Chernoff found that between 38-53% of the risk for either alcoholism or binging and purging behaviors could be attributed to genetics.
Most interesting, however, was the finding that the genetic risk for both problems was associated with some of the same genes. As of now, exactly which genes they share is uncertain, but hopefully further research using blood and saliva samples will be able to pinpoint those markers.
This study not only adds to the literature concerning the comorbidity of alcoholism with eating disorders, but it also lends credence to the burgeoning 'addiction' theory of eating disorders. There is more evidence arising of food addiction as well as the addictive potential of some eating disorder behaviors and patterns. If some of the same genes that contribute to alcohol dependence are also responsible for binging and purging behaviors, the common link could be addiction.
Regardless of what is yet to come, this research provides both scientists and clinicians with additional information about the comorbidity of these diseases and their treatment. A heightened awareness of the link could help clinicians be more mindful of assessing whether a patient was struggling with both and hopefully enable them to treat two serious conditions simultaneously.