Genetic influences on alcohol use behaviors have diverging developmental trajectories: a prospective study among male and female twins

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2014 Nov;38(11):2869-77. doi: 10.1111/acer.12560.


Background: Both alcohol-specific genetic factors and genetic factors related to externalizing behavior influence problematic alcohol use. Little is known, however, about the etiologic role of these 2 components of genetic risk on alcohol-related behaviors across development. Prior studies conducted in a male cohort of twins suggest that externalizing genetic factors are important for predicting heavy alcohol use in adolescence, whereas alcohol-specific genetic factors increase in importance during the transition to adulthood. In this report, we studied twin brothers and sisters and brother-sister twin pairs to examine such developmental trajectories and investigate whether sex and cotwin sex effects modify these genetic influences.

Methods: We used prospective, longitudinal twin data collected between ages 12 and 22 within the population-based FinnTwin12 cohort study (analytic n = 1,864). Our dependent measures of alcohol use behaviors included alcohol initiation (age 12), intoxication frequency (ages 14 and 17), and alcohol dependence criteria (age 22). Each individual's genetic risk of alcohol use disorders (AUD-GR) was indexed by his/her parents' and cotwin's DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence (AD) criterion counts. Likewise, each individual's genetic risk of externalizing disorders (EXT-GR) was indexed with a composite measure of parents' and cotwin's DSM-IV Conduct Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder criterion counts.

Results: EXT-GR was most strongly related to alcohol use behaviors during adolescence, while AUD-GR was most strongly related to alcohol problems in young adulthood. Further, sex of the twin and sex of the cotwin significantly moderated the associations between genetic risk and alcohol use behaviors across development: AUD-GR influenced early adolescent alcohol use behaviors in females more than in males, and EXT-GR influenced age 22 AD more in males than in females. In addition, the associations of AUD-GR and EXT-GR with intoxication frequency were greater among 14- and 17-year-old females with twin brothers.

Conclusions: We found divergent developmental trajectories for alcohol-specific and externalizing behavior-related genetic influences on alcohol use behaviors; in early adolescence, genetic influences on alcohol use behaviors are largely nonspecific, and later in adolescence and young adulthood, alcohol-specific genetic influences on alcohol use are more influential. Importantly, within these overall trajectories, several interesting sex differences emerged. We found that the relationship between genetic risk and problematic drinking across development is moderated by the individual's sex and his/her cotwin's sex. AUD-GR influenced adolescent alcohol outcomes in females more than in males and by age 22, EXT-GR influenced AD criteria more for males than females. In addition, the association between genetic risk and intoxication frequency was greater among 14- and 17-year-old females with male cotwins.

Keywords: Adolescence; Alcohol Dependence; Developmental Twin Study; Externalizing; Sex Differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics*
  • Alcohol Drinking / trends
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Finland / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Population Surveillance / methods
  • Prospective Studies
  • Twins / genetics*
  • Young Adult