There has been a long debate about whether substance addiction can be genetically passed down from family to family. This is likely because of the large amount of alcoholism that is said to run in families as well as other addictive substances. However, that argument overlooks other factors that may play a role in the development of a substance addiction. Substance addictions do not just turn on one day or happen overnight and current science agrees with that.
The fact is, only 50% of a person’s propensity to become addicted to something has been found to be due to genetics. This leaves 50% of anything else in the environment as possibilities for what could lead to substance addiction. A fifty-fifty chance explains why some people with a family history of addiction actually develop substance dependence themselves while others do not. Stress, past trauma, depression, peer pressure, the social environment, influences from friends, child rearing, and opportunities for substance use all play roles in the development of addiction too.
Even people with no history of family drug abuse could find themselves in drug and alcohol rehabilitation if the environment they live in is stressful enough. The majority of addicted substances relieve stress through the ways they induce pleasure as a form of escapism from the dark world they may be struggling to live in. People who are desperate and stressed may see drugs as the only way out.
The Basics of Genetics
To understand why genetics play a role in addiction, it is important to know what genetics are and how genetics works. Genetics is the study of genes, their function, and how they pass down to other organisms. Genes are building blocks made of DNA, the instruction manual for the cells and proteins that make up our body. In this sense, DNA and genes control almost everything about us. However, after birth and prenatally, in some cases, genes have to compete with the external environment which has the effect of turning genes on or off and provoking mutations in DNA that create chain reactions.
Chain reactions can result in physical or mental change in the person affected. When two people successfully reproduce, these genes pass on to their children who may or may not inherit the full effect of certain genes for things like eye color, height, susceptibility to stress, depression, chemical imbalances, and 50% of addiction. This is partly because there are recessive and dominant genes. Dominant genes automatically overpower recessive genes if they are passed down. Genetic inheritance is sometimes a mixed bag, so it is no wonder that studies have not found genes that account for 100% of what encompasses addiction.
The Significance of Epigenetics
Epigenetics is the study of how the external environment physically changes the structure of DNA, which leads to changes in the whole organism. The power of these changes are so strong that the epigenetic marks on that person’s DNA can be inherited by that person’s children. Tests on animals have revealed that addiction in one animal can increase proteins associated with addictive behaviors, which can be passed down to offspring. In this sense, perhaps drug treatment programs change DNA epigenetically to reverse any addictive behaviors that were genetically passed down. Although, this is just a speculation.
Genetics and Addiction
When it comes to genes for addiction, there is no one gene that automatically makes someone become addicted because studies often find specific genes that produce specific effects that may play a role in addiction. Brain scans reveal a specific aspect of any kind of addiction, that people with less dopamine 2 (D2) receptors have a higher chance of developing an addiction. Since the number of D2 receptors is partially genetically predetermined, many argue that this could play a role in the genetic transmission of substance addiction.
D2 receptors are needed for a person to experience pleasure and pleasure is needed to enjoy an activity like sex, watching a movie, laughing with friends, or pursuing a hobby. It follows that people with less D2 receptors are more likely to experience less pleasure from these average activities than others and therefore need more stimulation to feel any kind of pleasure, enjoyment, or excitement. Something that drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers find in those addicted to drugs eventually experience anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from anything other than the drug due to changes in their body from chronic drug use.
How Genetics Can Be Used in Treatment
A new field called pharmacogenetics studies the relationship between genetics and medications for diseases and substance addiction. This field has led to further research on substance addiction in order to improve drug treatment approaches. Specifically, pharmacogenetics has the potential to reveal relevant information regarding medications and personal treatment techniques that fit who the person is closer than a one-size-fits all approach to treatment.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates new medications for treatments, has looked into pharmacogenetics for the development of new medicines that are tailored to specific people with certain genetic patterns of addiction. They have approved of labeling relevant drugs with information about pharmacogenetic tests. However, the official development of these medications is slow due to the overall complexity and still-developing research in pharmacogenetics.
Where to Find Help for Addiction
At the Recover, we understand that any kind of substance addiction can make you feel powerless. Feeling trapped between severe withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings to start using again can make almost anyone feel hopeless. However, research suggests that substance addiction is far from hopeless when social support, treatment programs, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation are involved. Within treatment programs alone, there are a variety of therapies that attempt to cover the needs of those who are attempting to overcome their addiction.
The Recover is an unbiased substance abuse and mental health news provider that offers people information about drug and alcohol addiction. We also provide information about West Virginia centers for addiction recovery. If you have a family history of substance addiction and are currently struggling with your own addiction, then feel free to call us at (888) 510-3898 to speak with a treatment specialist who will answer any questions you may have and help you find the right drug treatment program that fits your needs. No one should have to battle addiction alone, we are here to help.