The heritability of alcohol use disorders: a meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies

Psychol Med. 2015 Apr;45(5):1061-72. doi: 10.1017/S0033291714002165. Epub 2014 Aug 29.


Background: To clarify the role of genetic and environmental risk factors in alcohol use disorders (AUDs), we performed a meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies and explored the impact of sex, assessment method (interview v. hospital/population records), and study design (twin v. adoption study) on heritability estimates.

Method: The literature was searched for all unique twin and adoption studies of AUD and identified 12 twin and five adoption studies. The data were then reconstructed and analyzed using ordinal data full information maximum likelihood in the OpenMx program. Heterogeneity was tested with likelihood ratio tests by equating the parameters across studies.

Results: There was no evidence for heterogeneity by study design, sex or assessment method. The best-fit estimate of the heritability of AUD was 0.49 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.43-0.53], and the proportion of shared environmental variance was 0.10 (95% CI 0.03-0.16). Estimates of unique environmental proportions of variance differed significantly across studies.

Conclusions: AUD is approximately 50% heritable. The multiple genetically informative studies of this syndrome have produced consistent results that support the validity of this heritability estimate, especially given the different potential methodological weaknesses of twin and adoption designs, and of assessments of AUD based on personal interviews v. official records. We also found evidence for modest shared environmental effects suggesting that environmental factors also contribute to the familial aggregation of AUDs.

Keywords: twin study.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adoption*
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / genetics
  • Alcoholism / genetics*
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Twins, Dizygotic / genetics*
  • Twins, Monozygotic / genetics*