Romantic Partner Alcohol Misuse Interacts With GABRA2 Genotype to Predict Frequency of Drunkenness in Young Adulthood

Published date01 February 2019
Date01 February 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17OToWB4JUa0d7/input 810578CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218810578Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeGajos et al.
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2019, Vol. 35(1) 7 –20
Romantic Partner Alcohol
© The Author(s) 2018
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Misuse Interacts With
DOI: 10.1177/1043986218810578
GABRA2 Genotype to Predict
Frequency of Drunkenness
in Young Adulthood
Jamie M. Gajos1, Michael A. Russell1,
H. Harrington Cleveland1, David J. Vandenbergh1,
and Mark E. Feinberg1
Previous research has identified the importance of romantic partners—including
spouses, significant others, and dating partners—for influencing the engagement in
health-risking behaviors, such as alcohol misuse during emerging adulthood. Although
genetic factors are known to play a role in the development of young adult alcohol
misuse, little research has examined whether genetic factors affect young adults’
susceptibility to their romantic partners’ alcohol misusing behaviors. The current
study tests whether a single nucleotide polymorphism in the GABRA2 gene (rs279845)
moderates the relationship between romantic partner alcohol misuse and frequency
of drunkenness in young adulthood. Results revealed differential risk associated
with romantic partner alcohol misuse and young adult drunk behavior according to
GABRA2 genotype, such that individuals with the TT genotype displayed an elevated
risk for frequency of drunkenness when romantic partner alcohol misuse was also
high (incidence rate ratio = 1.06, p ⩽ .05). The findings demonstrate the potential
for genetic factors to moderate the influence of romantic partners’ alcohol misuse on
drunk behavior during the transition to young adulthood.
romantic partners, alcohol misuse, young adulthood, GABRA2
1The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jamie M. Gajos, College of Health and Human Development, The Pennsylvania State University, 424
Health and Human Development Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA.

Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 35(1)
Romantic partnerships encompass one of the most salient social environments indi-
viduals experience during the transition to young adulthood, due in part to their poten-
tial to either increase or reduce engagement in risky behaviors. Romantic partners may
increase the likelihood of engaging in criminal behaviors (Herrera, Wiersma, &
Cleveland, 2011) and alcohol misuse (Leonard & Mudar, 2003). Given the role that
alcohol misuse plays in the development of criminal behaviors, such as both violent
and property crimes (Fergusson & Horwood, 2000), romantic partnerships may also
be characterized as a social mechanism that links alcohol misuse to delinquent and
criminal behaviors. Entering into romantic partnerships has also been linked to reduc-
tions in both substance misuse (Siennick et al., 2014) and deviant behaviors (Sampson
& Laub, 1990, 1993). Those who are married or cohabitating with a serious romantic
partner tend to show a reduction in heavy alcohol use relative to those who are single,
as well as relative to themselves upon becoming married (Fleming, White, & Catalano,
2010). Romantic partnerships may serve as a protective factor against the continuation
of alcohol misuse (Chassin, Hussong, & Beltran, 2009), yet the influence of romantic
partners’ own alcohol misuse on young adult heavy drinking should not be ignored.
The exposure to alcohol-using partners and peers has been linked to increases in young
adult binge drinking behaviors (Andrews, Tildesley, Hops, & Li, 2002) and romantic
partners tend to show homophily on measures of problem drinking (Boutwell, Beaver,
& Barnes, 2012; Windle, 1997).
The mechanisms by which romantic partners may influence alcohol misuse are
attributed to two processes: socialization, in which the exposure to partners’ alcohol
misuse influences individuals’ own alcohol misuse; and selection, in which individu-
als who engage in alcohol misuse tend to associate with—or “select into” relationships
with—partners who also engage in heavy drinking. Arguments exist for both pro-
cesses (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979; Glueck & Glueck, 1950),
but the two mechanisms are not mutually exclusive and may co-occur across develop-
mental periods (Rhule-Louie & McMahon, 2007). Genetically informed research
designs can help shed light on the synergistic relationship between an individual and
their social environment in fostering alcohol misuse. Findings from behavioral genetic
research designs reveal that genetic influences on alcohol misuse may become increas-
ingly important in adulthood (Rose, Dick, Viken, & Kaprio, 2001), where approxi-
mately 50% to 60% of the variance in adult alcohol dependence has been attributed to
genetic factors (Dick, Prescott, & McGue, 2009). However, social environments may
moderate genetic influences on young adult heavy drinking (Barr et al., 2017; Jarnecke
& South, 2014), thereby suggesting evidence of a gene–environment interaction.
The Relationship Between GABRA2, Romantic
Partnerships, and Alcohol Misuse
The association between variants within the GABRA2 gene and alcohol misuse behav-
iors has been examined in candidate gene studies and genome-wide association studies

Gajos et al.
(GWAS; Bierut et al., 2010; Dick, Agrawal, et al., 2006). A recent meta-analysis exam-
ined the relationship between variants within the GABRA2 gene and alcohol misuse
and found evidence in support of GABRA2 variants for contributing to alcohol misuse
behaviors (Li et al., 2014). Associations between variants in the GABRA2 gene and
alcohol use have been shown to vary across different developmental periods (Dick,
Bierut, et al., 2006; Dick et al., 2014). Dick, Bierut, and colleagues (2006) found varia-
tion in a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in GABRA2 (rs279871) to be signifi-
cantly related to alcohol dependence during the transition to young adulthood, where
those with at least one copy of the risk allele displayed an elevated risk for alcohol
dependence. The age of onset for alcohol dependence and the age at first intoxication
did not vary according to GABRA2 genotype. Similar findings have been reported,
where variation across six different SNPs in GABRA2 were associated with growth
trajectories of drunk behavior between the ages of 18 to 19 (Dick et al., 2014).
The influence of GABRA2 may partially depend on the exposure to relevant environ-
ments in adulthood. One environment that may interact with GABRA2 is romantic part-
nerships. Dick, Agrawal, and colleagues (2006) examined the association between
GABRA2 and marital status in predicting alcohol dependence and found variation in
GABRA2 and marital status to have independent effects on the risk for alcohol depen-
dence and to interact with one another. Differences in alcohol dependence did not vary
according to genotype among unmarried individuals, but GABRA2 contributed to dif-
ferences in alcohol dependence among married respondents, with those with a high-risk
genotype being at a greater risk for alcohol dependence. GABRA2 was also associated
with marital status, such that individuals with a high-risk genotype were more likely to
report never being married and less likely to experience stable marriages.
Examining the potential for a genetic variant located in the GABRA2 gene to mod-
erate the influence of romantic partners’ heavy drinking on young adult drunkenness
may also shed light on the pathways to alcohol misuse during emerging adulthood.
The GABRA2 gene codes for the alpha-2 subunit of GABAA receptors and belongs to
a group of GABAA receptor subunit-encoding genes located on chromosome 4
(McLean, Farb, & Russek, 1995). The GABAA alpha-2 subunit–containing receptors
are highly expressed in reward-sensitive areas of the brain. Variants within the
GABRA2 gene may influence differential sensitivity to environments, resulting in
greater responsiveness to both positive and negative environments (Russell et al.,
2018). GABRA2 variants may help account for differential responses to romantic part-
ners’ heavy alcohol use during emerging adulthood.
Current Study
The current study analyzes the relationship between romantic partner alcohol misuse
and the GABRA2 genotype. Although previous research has examined the potential for
romantic partnerships and/or social support mechanisms to moderate the impact of
genetic risk factors on alcohol misuse (Barr et al., 2017; Jarnecke & South, 2014),
these studies have estimated genetic influences as a latent construct—thereby not
allowing for an examination of the specific genes involved in alcohol misuse. Such

Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 35(1)
studies have also been unable to account for the potential impact that romantic part-
ner’s own alcohol misuse behaviors may have on such relationships. The current study
extends this area of research in two important ways. First, the GABRA2 genotype and

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