Is Addiction Genetic?
Whether there is a genetic predisposition to addiction has long dogged researchers. So far, there is no smoking gun, but there is evidence that genes play a part.
According to Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, genetics factor into approximately “40 to 70 percent of individual differences in risk for addiction.”
Several genes are thought to be linked to abuse, but only a handful have been identified. Scientists believe that the genes may make someone more or less prone to dependency.
Is Addiction Hereditary?
Researchers have conducted studies on families with multiple children and adoptees as well as identical and fraternal twins to try to determine how much genes contribute to addiction. Findings so far suggest that about half the risk of developing a drug and/or alcohol dependence seems to be linked to genes.
Two genes that control how alcohol is metabolized, for example — basically influencing whether or not someone develops a bad hangover, suffers nausea, dizziness, or irregular heartbeat — seem most linked to alcohol dependence and addiction.
Not everyone’s brain reacts the same to substances. If three people take the same pill, one might feel fantastic, the second person may feel little to no effect, and the third person may become sick. Genes play into those results.
Genes can also influence other things, including the risks of becoming alcoholic, the quantities of alcohol people will consume, and the likelihood of developing alcohol-related diseases such as cirrhosis. Environment and interactions with others tend to fill out the rest of the puzzle.
Genetics of Addiction
Isolating genes that may provide an on-off switch in terms of substance use disorders remains unknown. Finding that magic bullet means improved odds of curing the disease.
Especially perplexing is the fact that people’s DNA tends to be 99.9 percent the same. That 0.1 percent, however, is responsible for millions of differences, from different hair and eye colors to greater likelihood of some diseases. That fraction of a percent may also hold more clues as to why some may have a predisposition to addiction.
As for nature vs. nurture, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says a better way to put it would be nature AND nurture. A person’s health is influenced by both genes and environment.
For example, a child who attends a school that offers engaging activities may be less likely to use drugs or even try using them in the first place. Social influences, how a person reacts to various circumstances, family dynamics — all can discourage or increase likelihood of addictive behaviors.
How Is Addiction a Disease?
According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) webcast, a generation ago, people considered addiction more of a behavioral problem. In this perspective, a lack of willpower, a moral failing were to blame.
That thinking has shifted somewhat. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”
Despite government, university, and medical sites categorizing addiction as a disorder, debates continue whether or not addiction is a disease.
Treating it as an illness eases some of the stigma associated with addiction. “Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases,” according to the ASAM.
Science backs the disease diagnosis as well. Especially since addiction is being seen more and more as a chronic illness marked by drastic brain changes.
When a person is more vulnerable to addiction, that first hit, drink, or inhale sparks good feelings. A repeat of use means a repeat of pleasure. That first-time feel-good sensation is hard to sustain, though. Not without more of the substance in question. That’s because the brain is acclimating to that dose. More of the drug is needed to achieve the same bliss.
Why Is Addiction a Disease?
Researchers have found several spots in the brain linked to addiction. Dopamine is a chemical the brain’s gray matter makes, and it’s linked to rewards. Physical activity, listening to music, and food can all increase levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter.
Drugs can easily take over those pathways. They trigger two to 10 times the levels of dopamine that a natural activity would generate, so drugs can quickly override what nature does and take center stage.
For people who use drugs or alcohol, the euphoria that the substances produce is extremely hard to give up.
Giving up is especially difficult when more and more drugs or alcohol are needed to achieve that euphoric state. The longer users take illicit substances, the less dopamine their brains make. Or, their brains shut off dopamine production entirely. The result is apathy and lethargy.
The brain also changes with prolonged substance use. Memory lingers on what it takes to get high.
Why Treat Addiction as a Disease
Treating addiction as a disease — with a longer-term approach — can ensure better recovery outcomes.
Considering that a user’s memory changes and that triggers exist (old friends, old hangouts) a more in-depth recovery plan is more likely to succeed. Brain changes linger for years after a person has achieved sobriety, so there can always be a risk — not a guarantee, but a risk — of relapse.
Treating addiction as a disease erases stigma, according to SAMHSA. That brings addiction out of the shadows and opens up more opportunities for recovery.
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- asam.org – Definition of Addiction
- drugabuse.gov – DrugFacts: Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction
- addiction.surgeongeneral.gov – Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health
- learn.genetics.utah.edu – Genes and Addiction
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Genetics and Alcoholism
- niaaah.nih.gov – Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder
- healthblog.uofmhealth.org – Science Says Addiction is a Chronic Disease, Not a Moral Failing
- youtube.com – SAMHSA webcast: Why Addiction Is a ‘Disease’, and Why It’s Important”