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Alcohol dependence is a complex disorder that increases a person’s risk of death from all causes. Findings from a 2009 study suggest that variations in certain genes can impact the likelihood of relapsing following treatment.

BDNF is involved in neuronal growth and survival, as well as influencing neurotransmitters – chemical signals from the nervous system. Low BDNF levels have been linked to the development of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence.

Previous research has demonstrated that alcohol dependence has a genetic component. The current study investigated whether common variations in certain genes would have an effect on post-treatment relapse.

The prospective study involved 154 participants who met the criteria for alcohol dependence and were admitted to a treatment facility. The patients provided blood samples for genetic analysis and completed self-assessment questionnaires about depression, hopelessness, impulsivity, and the severity of their alcohol use. The authors followed up with participants for approximately one year to assess whether they had relapsed. Relapse was defined as any drinking during the observation period, with heavy drinking considered as more than four drinks per day for more than four consecutive days. During the follow-up period, 59 (48 percent) participants relapsed, with 48 returning to heavy drinking. The average time to relapse was 218 days.

The authors tested a genetic variant that resides in the BDNF gene, known as Val66Met. They observed that participants with the Val form of this gene were more likely to relapse compared to those with the Met version. Participants with two copies of the Val allele – one from each parent – had higher rates of relapse and shorter times to relapse when compared to carriers of at least one Met allele.

These findings suggest that BDNF influences a person’s ability to remain abstinent following treatment for alcohol dependence. With further evaluation, these findings may help clinicians to identify people at increased risk for post-treatment relapse and tailor their care plans.

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