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Public Health Rep. 1989 Nov-Dec;104(6):615-20.

Research on alcohol metabolism among Asians and its implications for understanding causes of alcoholism.

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Rockville, MD 20857.


Research into the causes of alcoholism is a relatively recent scientific endeavor. One area of study which could lead to better understanding of the disease is the possibility of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Recent work has demonstrated that people have varying complements of enzymes to metabolize alcohol. Current knowledge is examined about the influence of various ethanol metabolizing enzymes on alcohol consumption by Asians and members of other ethnic groups. The two principal enzymes involved in ethanol oxidative metabolism are alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). ADH is responsible for the metabolism of ethanol to acetaldehyde. ALDH catalyzes the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetate. The different isozymes account for the diversity of alcohol metabolism among individuals. An isozyme of ADH (beta 2 beta 2) is found more frequently in Asians than in whites, and an ALDH isozyme (ALDH2), although present in Asians, often is in an inactive form. The presence of an inactive form of ALDH2 is thought to be responsible for an increase in acetaldehyde levels in the body. Acetaldehyde is considered responsible for the facial flushing reaction often observed among Asians who have consumed alcohol. A dysphoric reaction to alcohol, producing uncomfortable sensations, is believed to be a response to deter further consumption. Although the presence of an inactive ALDH2 isozyme may serve as a deterrent to alcohol consumption, its presence does not fully explain the levels of alcohol consumption by those with the inactive isozyme. Other conditions, such as social pressure, and yet undetermined biological factors, may play a significant role in alcohol consumption.

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