The lack of reliable measures of alcohol intake is a major obstacle to the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol-related diseases. Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation may provide novel biomarkers of alcohol use. To examine this possibility, we performed an epigenome-wide association study of methylation of cytosine-phosphate-guanine dinucleotide (CpG) sites in relation to alcohol intake in 13 population-based cohorts (ntotal=13 317; 54% women; mean age across cohorts 42–76 years) using whole blood (9643 European and 2423 African ancestries) or monocyte-derived DNA (588 European, 263 African and 400 Hispanic ancestry) samples. We performed meta-analysis and variable selection in whole-blood samples of people of European ancestry (n=6926) and identified 144 CpGs that provided substantial discrimination (area under the curve=0.90–0.99) for current heavy alcohol intake (≥ 42 g per day in men and ≥ 28 g per day in women) in four replication cohorts. The ancestry-stratified meta-analysis in whole blood identified 328 (9643 European ancestry samples) and 165 (2423 African ancestry samples) alcohol-related CpGs at Bonferroni-adjusted P < 1 × 10−7. Analysis of the monocyte-derived DNA (n = 1251) identified 62 alcohol-related CpGs at P < 1 × 10-7. In whole-blood samples of people of European ancestry, we detected differential methylation in two neurotransmitter receptor genes, the γ-Aminobutyric acid-A receptor delta and γ-aminobutyric acid B receptor subunit 1; their differential methylation was associated with expression levels of a number of genes involved in immune function. In conclusion, we have identified a robust alcohol-related DNA methylation signature and shown the potential utility of DNA methylation as a clinically useful diagnostic test to detect current heavy alcohol consumption.

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Published in Molecular Psychiatry, v. 23, issue 2, p. 422-433.

© The Author(s) 2018

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in the credit line; if the material is not included under the Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission from the license holder to reproduce the material. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/.

Due to the large number of authors, only the first 30 and the authors affiliated with the University of Kentucky are listed in the author section above. For the complete list of authors, please download this article or visit: https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2016.192

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Supplementary Information accompanies the paper on the Molecular Psychiatry website (http://www.nature.com/mp)

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Supplementary Tables 1-7

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Supplementary Tables 9-14

mp2016192x4.xlsx (2674 kB)
Supplementary Tables 15-21,28,29