The genetic components of alcohol and nicotine co-addiction: from genes to behavior.
Co-occurrence of alcohol and nicotine addiction in humans is well documented and there is good evidence that common genes may contribute to both disorders. Although genetic factors contributing to tobacco and alcohol problem use have been well established through adoption, twin and family studies, specific genes remain to be identified and their mode of action elucidated. Recent work from human genetics studies has provided evidence that neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) genes may have a role in mediating early behaviors that are risk factors for alcohol and nicotine dependence, such as age of initiation and early subjective responses to the drugs. Converging evidence suggests that the dopaminergic system is likely to be important in mediating the pleasurable feelings of reward when activated by nicotine and/or alcohol consumption. The nAChRs are important components of the dopaminergic reward system because some of the receptors have been shown to activate the release of dopamine, and mice lacking genes for specific nAChR gene subunits show altered behavioral responses to nicotine and alcohol. Furthermore, complex interactions between other neurotransmitter circuits including GABA, glutamate and serotonin may be modulated by nAChRs, leading researchers to study genes involved in neurobiology shared by different drugs. Future studies aimed at understanding the variation among these genes, and their corresponding functional implications, will help elucidate how natural variants in nicotinic receptor genes contribute to these common co-morbid disorders.