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Media Availability: New biomarkers may lead to first reliable blood test for detecting alcohol misuse

NIH-supported finding may help improve diagnosis, treatment of alcoholism

For Immediate Release:
November 15, 2016

WHAT:  A team of researchers led by NIH scientists from the Framingham Heart Study says it has identified a group of new chemical markers in the blood that could provide the basis for the first reliable blood test to detect heavy alcohol use. In addition to screening ordinary citizens for signs of alcohol misuse, such a diagnostic test could be used to screen airline pilots, bus drivers, train conductors, and others whose jobs directly affect the public safety.  These biomarkers could also help shed light on the molecular basis of alcohol addiction, identify patients at high risk for alcoholism, and lead to new strategies for treating the disease, the researchers say. The study, the largest of its kind to evaluate blood markers for alcohol misuse, will appear in Molecular Psychiatry on November 15.  

Heavy alcohol use contributes to addiction, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries.  For years, scientists have searched with little success for reliable blood tests that measure past or recent alcohol intake.  The lack of such tests has been a major obstacle in the quest to improve the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol-related diseases.

In the current study, researchers report progress. They analyzed blood samples from more than 13,000 adults, mostly of European descent, who were part of the Cohorts for Heart and Aging Research in Genomic Epidemiology Consortium plus (CHARGE+) study.  The researchers identified a group of biomarkers—called cytosine-phosphate-guanine dinucleotides, or CpGs— that have certain chemical characteristics that are highly predictive in discriminating heavy alcohol drinkers from nondrinkers or light drinkers.  Although identifying these biomarkers is an important step in developing a reliable diagnostic test, more work is needed to establish such a test.

The team was led by NIH scientists from the Framingham Heart Study in collaboration with over 70 investigators from 50 organizations.  The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

WHO: Daniel Levy, M.D., Director, Framingham Heart Study, NHLBI, and Chunyu Liu, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, Framingham Heart Study, NHLBI, are available to comment on the findings and implications of this research.

CONTACT: For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact the NHLBI Office of Science Policy, Engagement, Education, and Communications at 301-496-5449 or nhlbi_news@nhlbi.nih.gov.