Risk Assessments

Children of alcoholic parents face risks at home and from their genetics

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Children of alcoholics face a steep uphill battle -- against their at-home environment, their families, even their genetics. Fortunately there is more awareness and research devoted to alcoholism's effects on children than ever before.

The risks associated with parental consumption of alcohol and children are myriad, but let's start off with some basics.

Did you know prenatal alcohol exposure can leave offspring at risk of developing a range of symptoms referred to as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)? These symptoms include a number of behavioral, cognitive and social development disorders similar to those seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In the Genes

Alcoholic parents put children at risk of developing alcoholism themselves. While a complex disease, alcoholism has both genetic and environmental triggers. A gene known as CREB regulates brain function during development and learning, and has been shown to play a role in alcohol tolerance, dependence and withdrawal symptoms. When there is less CREB in the region of the brain known as the central amygdala, rat models displayed increased anxiety-related behaviors and a preference for alcohol. This discovery -- made in 2004 -- underscores the genetic link to alcoholism researchers had presupposed for decades.

Rats deficient in the CREB gene drank about 50 percent more alcohol than normal rats in a 2004 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The effects of alcoholism in parents are far-reaching, too, extending to children at increasingly young ages. A recent study from Odyssey House, one of the largest rehabilitation clinics in Australia, finds 90 percent of residents there named their introduction to intoxication as early as age 12.


Throughout the past decade, alcohol consumption in adolescents ages 12 to 17 has increased two-fold. To address this alarming increase, researchers at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry devised a personality-based intervention for substance abuse to be delivered by teachers -- and it works.

The researchers at King's College assessed the mental health symptoms, academic achievement and substance use uptake over a two-year period among 2,506 adolescents with a mean age of 13.7. They found a 55 percent decreased risk of binge-drinking in a group that received intervention compared with controls who did not receive intervention. The control group was only 1.7 times more likely to report subsequent alcohol use than those who received the teacher-based intervention.

Good News

When interventions fail -- as they will inevitably for some young people -- genes could again play an important role, this time in preventing alcoholism.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine recently pinpointed a gene variant (CYP2E1) that protects against alcoholism, according to the research.

The variant is associated with a person's response to alcohol, intensifying its effects. For people with this variant, just a drink or two leaves them feeling more inebriated than everyone else. The good news is individuals with the CYP2E1 variant are less likely to become alcoholics, according to the study.

"We have found a gene that protects against alcoholism," said senior study author Kirk Wilhelmsen, M.D., Ph.D., professor of genetics at UNC.

Step One ...

If you or a loved one is a parent and also an alcoholic, you owe it to your children to protect them from the devastating effects of this malicious disease by seeking professional help -- before your problem becomes theirs.

The 24-hour, toll-free hotline for Alcoholics Anonymous is (888) 511-7710.

Review Date: 
February 16, 2011