Genetics and Addiction: Am I Born This Way? – Lee Weber

Genetics can indicate addiction development, but it is not the only factor to determine susceptibility. What we know is that the presence or absence of some genes can increase the possibility of one to become dependent. Even though science try to find the biological differences that have effect on some people, it doesn’t mean that you are born as addict. What it actually means is that certain genes can affect your willingness to quit once you start using drugs, or cause more severe withdrawal symptoms while coping with addiction. On the other hand, genetics can also influence people to hardly become addicted by making them feel sick when using some substances.

In this article we explain:

  1. How can the family history have influence on us to become addicted
  2. Are there possible ways to predict our addictive behavior by looking at our genes?
  3. What are our chances to prevent development of addiction?

At the end of the page we invite your questions, comments about genetics and addiction.

What The Research Says

Many studies show the impact of specific genes on our relation to alcohol and drug dependence. They all suggest that dependence can really runs in and affect families. Even though specific “addiction” genese has not been identified, there are other biological factors that put somone at bigger risk of becoming an addict.

Here are some of the studies done on the relation between genes and addiction and their results:

STUDY #1: The Virginia Twin study revealed that in early adolescence the initiation and use of nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis are more strongly determined by familial and social factors. However, these factor decrease in importance during the progression to young and middle adulthood, when the effects of genetic factors become maximal, and declining somewhat with aging.

Addictions are moderately to highly heritable. This study reveals that an individual’s risk tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative. Both genetic and environmental variables contribute to the initiation of use of addictive agents and to the transition from use to addiction.   

STUDY #2: Another twin and family studies provide strong evidence that addictions involve the interaction between genetic and environmental factors. After attempts to quit smoking, people with CYP2B6*6 genotype were more likely to relapse than those with other genotypes when on placebo, but can be helped by bupropion treatment. Anyhow, greater knowledge of the genetics underlying addiction is crucial for the development of more effective interventions.

STUDY #3: Large study for alcohol-related behaviors have consistently shown that heritability of alcohol abuse and dependence ranges from 50% to 70%. A similarly high heritability also is seen across other alcohol-related behaviors, including heavy consumption and problem drinking. Meta-analysis of the study shows that both genes and environment are important in smoking-related behaviors. Genetic factors have a larger role in initiation than in persistence in women, whereas the opposite is observed in men.

The Role of Family History

Many children whose parents have or had problems with drugs do not become addicted when they grow up. There is still a risk, but it does not mean that will happen. If you start using drugs, and people in your family have addictions, then it is very likely for you to become addicted. This can be a problem that continues throguh many generations. It does not depend on your financial status. Children use to be very unhappy and scared when their parents have drug or alcohol problems. Living with fear and uncertainty can affect them more to become addicted to drugs or alcohol when they grow up.

Can We Predict Addiction Looking at Our Genes?

Scientist found that the predictor can come directly from the brain. They used scalp electrodes to detect the electrical signals of groups of neurons and recorded characteristic patterns of brain activity generated by specific visual stimuli. In the complex squiggle of evoked brain waves, the relative size of one peak, called P300, indicated addiction risk. Having a smaller P300 at age 17 predicts the development of an alcohol or drug problem by age 20. Prior differences in consumption don’t explain this observation, as the reduced-amplitude P300 (P3-AR) is not a consequence of alcohol or drug ingestion. Rather, genes strongly influence this trait: P3-AR is often detectable in the children of fathers with substance-use disorders even before these problems emerge in the offspring. The physiological nature of P300 makes it an especially interesting marker, as it may originate from “addiction” genes more directly than any behavior.

Stopping the Cycle

So, the main question most of us want to know is: “Can we prevent the development of addiction?”

“One way to change our genes is to make new ones, and the other is to change our lifestyles,” says Dean Ornish, a clinical professor at UCSF and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

The changes in our lifestyle that Mr. Ornish suggest do not have to last long for you to feel the benefits. Eating healthier, learn how to effectively manage stress and find more love in your life, influence your brain development to get bigger. Through this lifestyle you get more blood flow and more oxygen, which is the proper food for our brains. He mentions several thing that you can do to make your brain grow new brain cells. Some of those things are:

  • chocolate
  • tea
  • blueberries
  • alcohol in moderation
  • stress management

Some of the things that can make it worse, and cause you to lose brain cells are:

  • saturated fat and sugar
  • nicotine
  • opiates
  • cocaine
  • too much alcohol
  • chronic stress

These changes in your lifestyle will help you age less quickly and actually reverse heart disease. It is not just helping not to develop addictive behavior, but stops and reverse the progression of cancer, and increase sexual potency. In their study, Mr. Ornish found that tumor growth in vitro was inhibited 70 percent in the group that made these changes, whereas only nine percent in the comparison group. These differences were highly significant. The change of your lifestyle in this direction will turn on your good genes, the disease-preventing genes, and turn off your disease-promoting genes.

This findings are very powerful, giving many people new hope and new choices. Our genes are not our fate, and if we make these changes – they’re a predisposition – but if we make bigger changes than we might have made otherwise, we can actually change how our genes are expressed.

Closing and Your Questions

In the end, each of these studies are very significant for every one of us. Our genes DO NOT DEFINE our future. Knowing this gives new hope and opens many other choices.

As always, we’re also here to help. If you have any questions or concerns about genetics and addiction, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. All the best!

Reference sources:

UTAH: Genes and Addiction

NCADD: Family history and genetics

TED: Dean Ornish: Your genes are not your fate

NIH: Does Addiction Run in Families?

NCBI: New insights into the genetics of addiction

University of Northernlowa: Behavioral genetics uses twins and time to decipher the origins of addiction and learn who is most vulnerable

Lee Weber

About Lee Weber

AUTHOR BIO: Lee W. is a writer, mother, and lover in long-term addiction recovery. Her challenge is balance, maybe because she’s a Libra.
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