Is Addiction Genetically Passed? Exploring the Role of Genetics in Addiction

This article explores how genetics play into addiction risk and what environmental factors can lead someone down this path.

Is Addiction Genetically Passed? Exploring the Role of Genetics in Addiction

Because not all smokers are the same, it is possible to look at genetic factors to determine the best way to quit smoking. The genetically determined rate at which the body can metabolize nicotine, for example, makes a difference in whether a nicotine patch or nicotine nasal spray will work better in the long term. Some diseases, such as sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis, are caused by a change, known as a mutation, in a single gene. Some mutations, such as BRCA 1 and 2 mutations, which are linked to a much higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer, have become fundamental medical tools for assessing a patient's risk of serious illness. Medical researchers have had surprising success in unraveling the genetics of these single-gene disorders, although finding treatments or cures has not been so simple.

Most diseases, including addiction, are complex and variations in many different genes contribute to a person's overall level of risk or protection. The good news is that scientists are actively seeking many more avenues for the treatment and prevention of these complex diseases. Accumulated evidence suggests that environmental factors, such as stress, induce epigenetic changes that can trigger the development of psychiatric disorders and drug addiction. Epigenetic changes refer to gene expression regulations that do not involve alterations in the sequence of one's own genetic material (DNA). In practice, epigenetic changes are information that is added to existing genetic material, but that can affect gene expression.

Each person inherits a unique combination of genetic variations. People with substance use disorder may have different underlying genetic causes. And people who share certain high-risk genetic variations may or may not have the trait. Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happens in the Best Families Describes how alcohol and drug addiction affects the whole family. Explains how substance abuse treatment works, how family interventions can be a first step toward recovery, and how to help children in families affected by alcohol and drug abuse. Yes, there may be a genetic predisposition to substance abuse.

In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that “at least half of a person's susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction may be related to genetic factors. Hereditary and genetic factors account for about 50-75% of the causes of substance abuse and addiction. If a person has certain genes or hereditary influences, they are more likely to exhibit addictive behaviors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is currently supporting a major research effort to identify genetic variations that make a person vulnerable to drug addiction. This effort involves studying DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which directs the development of each human cell (Figure).

By mapping DNA sequences in drug addicts, scientists have been able to isolate gene sequences that indicate an increased risk of becoming drug addicts. These genetic sequences contain the instructions for producing specific 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 (Figure). The personality disorder most commonly associated with addiction is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which involves dishonest, manipulative, callous and criminal behavior. These characteristics make up the stereotype of someone with an addiction. Researchers may have been able to demonstrate that genetic predispositions exist, but linking certain genes or traits to addictions has proven much more difficult.

Presenters at an April 8 congressional hearing described new research on the genetic basis of addiction and recommended ways to incorporate those findings into treatment. For example, a community that offers healthy extracurricular activities has been shown to reduce vulnerability to drug addiction, and data show that access to exercise can discourage drug-seeking behavior, an effect that is more pronounced in men than in women. Those who are affected by tragedy or exposed to addiction at an early age are more likely to develop substance abuse problems later in life. I have had several losses without being active when I should have been, but it never led to addiction. Research into the role of genes in drug addiction has shown that natural variations in the proteins encoded by a person's genes can lead to differences in that person's vulnerability to drugs of abuse. Other environmental factors that could lead to addiction include growing up in a household with drug users, having a mental illness, losing a loved one, being fired from a job, and stress-related triggers. While the impact of stress on addiction has been extensively studied in scientific literature, the general public does not understand it. Because Rett syndrome is profoundly disabling, those affected are rarely exposed to drugs, so it is not known how the disorder affects addiction risk.

The interaction between stress hormones and the reward system can trigger the development of addiction, as well as a stress-induced relapse in drug or alcohol recovery. Instead, an enormous number of factors, ranging from early life traumas to the genes that encode metabolic enzymes, play a role in the development of addiction genetics. This means that programs should be tailored to individual needs, not be based on the idea that all people with addictions are the same. Alcoholism is the most extensively researched addiction because alcohol consumption has a very long history in many cultures. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you should know that treatment can help you start the path to recovery to overcome addiction.