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What Is the Connection Between Genetics and Addiction?

The link between genetics and addiction is something of a double-edged sword: some people believe it means they are helpless to resist becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, while others interpret it as a concrete reason why they were predisposed to addiction and not a “moral failing” on their part.

While how you interpret the connection is very subjective, the facts emerging are more objective. It is true that anyone could potentially develop an addiction to drugs and alcohol, but it is also true that you are more than twice as likely to develop one if there is a family history of substance abuse. As a result, researchers are exploring the possibility of gene therapy in treating addiction, though the outcomes are not entirely clear to date.

If you know you are genetically predisposed to addiction, making a concerted effort to avoid drugs and consume alcohol in careful moderation can be helpful. No one is doomed to become addicted but making smart choices when you have a family history of it goes a long way.

There is no point in attempting treatment, as this is a genetic issue and cannot be helped.”
“My parents relapsed after drug treatment, and I’m sure I will, too. It’s hopeless.”
“No matter how hard I try, my children are doomed to a lifetime of addiction.”

If you have a family history of alcoholism or drug abuse, you may feel your own addiction is impossible to overcome. While research has shown a link between heredity and dependence, it has also shown that these risk factors can be overcome with the right supports in place.

The Link Between Genetics and Addiction

Everyone has the potential to form an addiction, as the physical mechanism of addiction exists in your brain regardless of alcohol or drug exposure. When your brain experiences something pleasurable, it develops nerve pathways that desire the enjoyable substance repeatedly. The disease of addiction forms when those nerve pathways become more permanent.

However, as shown in a study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, those with immediate family who battle addiction have a 50–60% higher chance of becoming an alcoholic or drug addict at some point in their life. This raises the question as to whether addiction is caused by genetics alone, or the environment in which a child is raised. According to a study conducted by the Colorado Adoption Project, a genetic link does increase the likelihood of addiction, even when children are not raised in an environment that promotes addiction. Their genetics play an important factor in overall risk of addiction even when they are not regularly exposed to drugs and alcohol. However, a similar study shows that environment plays an even larger role in addiction issues and prevention.

*Can Gene Therapy Help With Addiction?

A variety of studies have been conducted with both mice and humans, in which their genetic material was mapped or altered to identify key traits in addiction and alcoholism. One study, performed by the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center, focused on gene therapy in order to assist the medical community in withdrawal and addiction prevention. The study found that:

  • In humans carrying two copies of the ALDH 2 gene, alcoholism is atypical.
  • The allele gene DRD2, which is a dopamine receptor, produced mice with higher levels of addiction to both alcohol and cocaine.
  • Mice with an altered Per2 gene drink up to three times more alcohol.

Reduce Your Risk

Keep in mind that a genetic predisposition to addiction does not seal your fate; genetics do not determine your individual actions. Generally, if a family link to addiction is clear and pervasive, the following is recommended:

  • Abstain from drugs and alcohol as much as possible.
  • Understand how addiction began for your family members, and consciously avoid similar situations.
  • Be open and honest with family members about your desire to remain addiction-free.
  • Find a therapist experienced in dependency issues, or support group such as Al-Anon that assist people in managing family relationships when faced with addiction.

While genetics can play a significant role in determining the risk of drug or alcohol addiction, a family history does not equal a life of abuse and addiction. Coping skills, communication, and thoughtful prevention can overcome a genetic predisposition to drug and alcohol addiction.

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