Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) identify genetic variants associated with a trait, regardless of how those variants are associated with the outcome. Characterizing whether variants for psychiatric outcomes operate via specific versus general pathways provides more informative measures of genetic risk. In the current analysis, we used multivariate GWAS to tease apart variants associated with problematic alcohol use (ALCP-total) through either a shared risk for externalizing (EXT) or a problematic alcohol use-specific risk (ALCP-specific). SNPs associated with ALCP-specific were primarily related to alcohol metabolism. Genetic correlations showed ALCP-specific was predominantly associated with alcohol use and other forms of psychopathology, but not other forms of substance use. Polygenic scores for ALCP-total were associated with multiple forms of substance use, but polygenic scores for ALCP-specific were only associated with alcohol phenotypes. Polygenic scores for both ALCP-specific and EXT show different patterns of associations with alcohol misuse across development. Our results demonstrate that focusing on both shared and specific risk can better characterize pathways of risk for substance use disorders. Parsing risk pathways will become increasingly relevant as genetic information is incorporated into clinical practice.
© 2022. The Author(s).