Is Addiction Both Learned and Biological?

At least half of a person's susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction may be related to genetic factors. Learn more about how genes cause biological differences in addiction and how this knowledge can help us find better treatments.

Is Addiction Both Learned and Biological?

Genes have a significant influence on the number and types of receptors in people's brains, how quickly the body metabolizes drugs, and how they respond to different medications. This knowledge can help us to advance the science of addiction and find solutions. Research has shown that at least half of a person's susceptibility to drug addiction may be related to genetic factors. The American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) are both supporting research to identify genetic variations that make a person vulnerable to drug addiction.

These genetic sequences contain instructions for producing proteins, which perform most of the body's vital functions. How these proteins work or don't work can indicate how vulnerable a person is to drug addiction. The disease of drug addiction shares many characteristics with other chronic diseases, one of which is heritability, which means a tendency to be hereditary. By understanding the triggers of addiction development, we can develop more specific prevention and treatments.

Treatments that could reduce the physiological effects of stress can be effective treatments for addiction, helping people suffering from an addiction maintain long-term abstinence, even when faced with stressors. Health care providers see the benefits of genetic testing to help determine a person's unique addiction risks, but it's an area that requires more research. Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University Medical Center reported in 2004 an important finding on the genetics of drug addiction. While genetic influences may be at play, factors associated with growing up in a household with an addicted parent, exposure to addictive substance and other addictive behaviors, and shared family beliefs about substance and addiction will also determine a child's inclination toward substance abuse.

These behaviors produce epigenetic changes that prevent the development of addiction and may play a beneficial role in treatment when used in combination with other interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and, for some people, medications. Treatment can help you understand addiction and its triggers, teach you ways to prevent relapse, and help you develop better stress management and coping skills so you can refrain from using drugs and alcohol. By understanding how genes cause biological differences, we can develop better treatments for substance use disorder.