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The Genetics of Peer Pressure and Alcohol

A team of six researchers, three of which are from Syracuse University, published a study this semester exploring nature versus nurture as causes of adolescent alcohol use.

According to Michelle Zaso, a SU clinical psychology graduate student involved in the study, says the study explores genetic differences in people’s vulnerability to drinking based on their peers and tendencies to seek out peers with similar levels of drinking.

The study focused on one gene, DRD4, and whether people with the DRD4 gene were more likely to be influenced by their peers.

The study was a follow-up from Syracuse University Professor Dr. Aesoon Park’s abnormal psychology dissertation project from 2011. The study was about how people who have the DRD4 gene are especially vulnerable and influenced by their environment when compared to people who don’t have the DRD4 gene. They feel like everyone’s drinking around them. “Your friends think that drinking heavily is an okay thing to do, or sometimes you even feel like it’s an awesome thing to do,” said Park. “By perceiving that, that cognition is actually causing them to engage in more drinking.”

Prior studies indicate that peer drinking norms are arguably one of the strongest correlates of adolescent drinking.

Afton Kapuscinski, director of the psychological services center at SU, has noticed that college students underestimate the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse.

“Normative doesn’t mean not dangerous,” said Kapuscinski. “Research also indicates that college students tend to overestimate how much other people drink, and they underestimate the amount of students who don’t drink at all.”

Kapuscinski claims that 20 percent of SU students are completely abstinent from alcohol, which she says is higher than most students think.

Eventually Park wants to see some kind of way to predict which people are at a high risk of drinking, by considering an individual’s genes and environment. “So we can prevent it or observe it so we can intervene earlier rather than too late,” said Park.

Park said that she hopes that someday screening for alcohol abuse risk will become like cancer screening. The goal is that when people go to their primary care doctors, they can screen the genetic risk of alcohol problems and provide symptoms and resources for prevention and treatment.

“Genetic counseling is already happening,” said Park. “It’s a long way to go for the drinking problem, but that’s potentially the future. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Dr. Stephen Glatt is an associate professor at SUNY Upstate and one of the authors of the study. “There’s a few different ways that drinking behaviors become entrenched. Some people drink to self medicate,” said Glatt. “Some people just drink because other people are drinking; that’s what this study is about.”

Glatt said that they were interested in seeing if the amount of alcohol taken in by college students is influenced by how much the people around them are drinking, especially because college is a particularly influential period for peer relationships on drinking.

Glatt explained that students drink more if the people around them are drinking more. “People tended to conform to the norms around them,” said Glatt. “This particular study focused on seeing if that, in part, was related to specific genes.”

People with the DRD4 genotype were more likely to drink more when their peers had more positivity towards drinking and alcohol abuse, according to Glatt. People with that genotype tend to hang out with people who are more in favor of drinking.

“It’s not a causal relationship – who you hang out with and what your attitude towards drinking is determined by a lot of factors, it’s not just genetic factors – it’s just probabilistic,” said Glatt.

Though the team feels that these are important public health problems to study, there isn’t a follow-up study coming soon because of a lack of support, according to Glatt. “At this point, we published the paper, we hope that that will be influential in swaying public policy and swaying other scientists to take a look at this so we can come to a consensus that we need more research on this and it’ll be easier to get the funding.”

“What we came away from this study understanding is that this one particular genotype is a small piece of the puzzle in determining who you hang out with,” said Glatt.

Glatt said that the most important takeaway from the study is that genes and environments are both important for determining drinking behavior. “We know that for complex behaviors like drinking, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both,” said Glatt. “So our job is to figure out what part nature, what part nurture, and how those interact and influence drinking behavior.”

The study was published by Park, Glatt, SU Clinical Psychology Graduate Students Jueun Kim and Zaso, University of Missouri Faculty Kenneth Sher and Brown University Associate Professor Lori Scott-Sheldon.


By Abby Rose Sugnet