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This research indicates consumers could increase their demand for clinical laboratory testing for genetic risk factors associated with addiction

Rutgers University researchers recently published a study of hundreds of college students that suggests there could be high future consumer demand for genetic testing related to addiction risk. What is significant is that the college students surveyed are members of Generation Z, people born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s.

Zoomers grew up knowing about the human genome, and they are likely aware of new genetic insights, new gene therapies, and new clinical laboratory tests that analyze genomic data to diagnose disease and/or identify the individual’s predisposition to certain genetic conditions.

Thus, consumer demand among Gen Z for clinical laboratories to provide such tests in the future could drive a new class of diagnostic testing that would generate a new revenue stream for clinical laboratories, while also enabling labs to deliver a value-added service to healthcare consumers and their physicians.

The Rutgers researchers published their findings in an article in the journal American Journal of Medical Genetics titled, “The Impact of Receiving Polygenic Risk Scores for Alcohol Use Disorder on Psychological Distress, Risk Perception, and Intentions to Reduce Drinking.”

“Overall, the [study] results strongly encourage the notion that real genetic risk scores may prove helpful in preventing and treating alcohol addiction,” Danielle Dick, PhD, Director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center and lead author of the study, told Neuroscience News. The results of the Rutgers study could lead to increased demand for clinical laboratory tests to determine addiction risk. (Photo copyright: Rutgers University.)

Methodology Used in Rutgers Study

To complete their study, the Rutgers researchers surveyed 325 college students and asked how they would react to learning about genetic test results indicating their risk for alcohol use disorder. The researchers found that despite the complexity of the genetic factors underlying addiction, respondents understood the connection between genetic risk and the likelihood of developing alcoholism. And most respondents indicated they would take precautions if they learned that they were at high risk.

The research “paves the way for studies using real genetic data and for integrating genetic information into prevention and intervention efforts,” the study’s lead author, Danielle Dick, PhD, Director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center (RARC), Greg Brown Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, and Professor, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School/Psychiatry, told Neuroscience News.

The story notes that most genes associated with addiction have only been discovered recently. Commercial genetic testing services do not provide information about addiction risk, “so very few people have ever received genuine information about their genetic tendency toward addiction,” Neuroscience News noted.

The researchers obtained their data as part of a trial that sought to evaluate “the efficacy of educational information on understanding of polygenic risk scores for alcohol use disorder,” they wrote in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

After recruiting the study participants, the researchers randomly assigned them to one of three groups:

  • A control group of 109 students that received no educational information.
  • A group of 105 students who were directed to a website with educational information about alcohol use disorder, “including a definition, consequences, and ways to reduce risk,” the researchers wrote.
  • A group of 111 students who were directed to a website with the same information about alcoholism, in addition to information about the role of genetics in addiction risk. This included information about “genetic variation, risk variants, how polygenic scores are created, and how they can be interpreted,” the researchers noted.

In all three groups, the survey asked respondents to imagine three hypothetical scenarios: that they had 1) a below-average genetic risk of developing alcoholism, 2) an average risk, and 3) an above-average risk.

For each level of risk, they answered a series of questions “that assessed psychological distress, perceived chance of developing alcohol use disorder, and intentions related to seeking additional information, talking to a healthcare provider, and drinking behavior,” the researchers wrote.

Results of the Rutgers Study of Genetic Risk for Alcohol Use Disorder

The researchers found that exposure to educational information had a minimal impact on the responses, which were generally consistent across all three groups.

With higher levels of risk for alcohol use disorder, respondents were more likely to indicate psychological distress, more likely to seek additional information, more likely to talk to a healthcare provider, and more likely to change drinking behaviors.

And “as the level of genetic risk increased, the perceived chance of developing alcohol use disorder significantly increased,” the researchers wrote.

Does Learning of Risk Alter Behavior?

Citing previous research, Dick said that addiction risk is roughly half determined by genetic factors, “but there’s no single addiction gene that’s either present or absent,” Dick told Neuroscience News. “Instead, there are thousands of interacting genes, so each person’s genetic risk falls somewhere on a continuum.”

The risk is distributed on a bell curve, she said, and most people fall in the middle. But despite this complexity, “study participants formed relatively accurate impressions of the risk for addiction associated with various genetic results.”

The researchers appeared to be most encouraged that the respondents indicated a willingness to take precautionary measures if they learned they had a high genetic risk of developing alcoholism.

“There was a hope that compelling information about elevated genetic risk would get people to change behavior, but we haven’t seen that happen for other aspects of health,” Dick said. “Initial studies suggest that receiving genetic feedback for heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes does not get people to change their behavior. Getting people to alter their behavior is hard.”

Future Rutgers studies will investigate understanding of risk scores in other populations, Neuroscience News reported. 

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Unlocking Addiction Risk: Genetic Test Could Shape Future Prevention Strategies

The Impact of Receiving Polygenic Risk Scores for Alcohol Use Disorder on Psychological Distress, Risk Perception, and Intentions To Reduce Drinking

DNA Test Results May Enhance Prevention and Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder

Rutgers Researchers Delve Deep Into the Genetics of Addiction