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Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1999 May;23(5):759-69.

The heritability of alcoholism symptoms: "indicators of genetic and environmental influence in alcohol-dependent individuals" revisited.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Missouri, Columbia 65211, USA.


There is consistent evidence from twin and adoption studies implicating genetic factors in the etiology of alcoholism, yet few studies have examined the role of genetic influences on individual symptoms of alcoholism. In a previous study of 113 male twins, Johnson et al. (1996a) identified 7 alcoholism symptoms that were more "genetic" and 14 that were more "environmental" (that is, non-genetic) in their etiology by examining symptom concordances among monozygotic and dizygotic twin pairs. The present study represents an attempt to replicate the results of this previous study and extend them by estimating the contribution of genetic factors to the variation in liability for different alcoholism symptoms. Subjects were 3356 male twin pairs from the Vietnam Era Twin Registry. Lifetime histories of alcoholism symptoms were assessed by a structured psychiatric telephone interview. The results of the previous study were not replicated. The correlations between symptom classifications as genetic and non-genetic in the present and previous study were nonsignificant and ranged from -0.27 to 0.11. However, within the present study the correlation between symptom classifications as genetic and non-genetic was statistically significant across random split-half subsamples (r = 0.59); nine alcoholism symptoms were consistently classified as genetic and six symptoms as non-genetic in their etiology. Model-fitting analyses applied to different alcoholism symptoms yielded heritability estimates ranging from 0.03 to 0.53 with broad and overlapping confidence intervals around these estimates, ranging from 0.00 to 0.65. The results of this study highlight the difficulty of identifying more or less heritable phenotypes in twin research, and suggest that it may not be possible to identify specific alcoholism symptoms that are more genetic in their etiology than others. Nevertheless, there appears to be potentially important variation in the relative magnitude of genetic influences for individual alcoholism symptoms, and exploring these differences may lead to further insights into the nosology and etiology of alcohol-related problems.

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