So is Addiction Genetic? Or is it not?
When it comes to alcohol and drug addiction, a question often asked is if addiction is tied to one’s genetics. Over the past several decades, there has been extensive research on this topic. The University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center is one place to visit in search of answers. There, researchers explain that because addiction is such a complex disease, it is difficult to find one single addiction gene. Addiction vulnerability and the probability that someone will become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol includes multiples factors, both inherited and environmental.
So, when a researcher looks for an addiction gene, what exactly are they seeking out? In simple terms, the researcher is looking for biological differences that make someone more likely or less likely to become an addict. For instance, certain genetic makeup may make it more difficult for someone to quit drugs or alcohol once they start. Other genes may cause more severe withdrawal symptoms to occur in an individual. In addition, some drugs may make an individual feel good but make someone else feel very sick, all depending on their genetic makeup. Even with these realities and the fact that countless research has shown that genes influence addiction, scientists remind us that becoming an addict doesn’t solely rest on our genetic makeup – our environment also plays a major role.
You may be wondering how exactly our “addiction” genes were discovered. Many were discovered through the help of animal models, especially mice. The reward pathway of mice works similarly to humans, helping scientists better identify addiction genes. When a scientist makes a discovery in the mice of a gene that is associated with addiction, he or she then identifies its equivalent in a human. Studies with mice have offered tremendous information regarding addiction and genes. For instance, a dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is seen more in people addicted to cocaine or alcohol; mice lacking certain serotonin genes are more likely to be attracted to cocaine and alcohol; mice with high level of neuropeptide Y abstain from alcohol but mice with low levels drink more alcohol. Again, this is just a small sampling of genetic information about addiction obtained from studying mice, but you can see how valuable the information is when it comes to genetics.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the choice for someone to begin drinking or using drugs is based heavily on their environment, however, once that person begins using drugs or alcohol, their risk of developing dependence and addiction is then largely influenced on their genetic makeup. The NCADD also states that the most reliable indicator of risk for future drug and alcohol issues is family history. In addition, it is this family history combined with genetic makeup that influences the risk of drug and alcohol dependence being passed down from generation to generation.
As scientists better understand the role of genetic variation and addiction, more effective treatments can be designed. Looking to the future, scientists and doctors may use genetic tests to better decide which medications or treatments can work on each individual suffering from addiction.