Drunk Gene Found, Could be Linked to Alcoholism


If alcohol seems to go right to your head and you get drunk quickly, it may be because you have the “drunk gene.” Scientists have discovered that 10 to 20 percent of the population has CYP2E1, a gene that has instructions for making an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol and could be linked to alcoholism--in a positive way.

Having a drunk gene could help prevent alcoholism

Scientists point out that people who have CYP2E1 tend to get drunk quickly because they cannot “hold” their alcohol. Therefore they are more likely to stop drinking after only a few drinks and less likely to become alcoholics.

The study that led scientists to make these statements involved 237 college student siblings who were not alcoholics themselves but who had one parent who was alcohol-dependent. Scientists evaluated the genetics of all the students and focused on a specific region of chromosome 10 where the CYP2E1 gene is located.


All the students were given beverages that contained alcohol and soft drinks equivalent to about three average alcoholic drinks. They were asked at regular intervals how they felt: drunk, sober, awake, or sleepy.

According to Professor Kirk Wilhelmsen, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the study’s senior author, “We have found a gene that protects against alcoholism, and on top of that, has a very strong effect.” He cautioned, however, that “alcoholism is a very complex disease,” and that this gene “may be just one of the reasons.”

Scientists suspect the ability of CYP2E1 to impact sobriety is linked to the fact that it acts on the brain and not the liver. In the brain, the gene generates free radicals, which can damage brain cells. “It turns out that a specific version or allele of CYP2E1 makes people more sensitive to alcohol, and we are now exploring whether it is because it generates more of these free radicals,” noted Wilhelmsen.

Ten to 20 percent of the population has a gene variant, CYP2E1, that makes them more likely to get drunk faster. This discovery could lead to drugs that induce CYP2E1 that could be given to make people more sensitive to alcohol before they begin drinking or perhaps sober up after drinking too much. Wilhelmsen hopes it will change how scientists research the underlying causes of alcoholism.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill news release