The opioid addiction epidemic is undeniable. Although over the past year, we’ve seen advancements, addiction treatment remains limited. To make significant improvements, we need to understand what triggers the development of addiction. Finding out if addiction is genetics is a critical question that researchers continue to explore.
In most cases, a blend of psychiatric disorders, environmental factors, and genetic predisposition determine how vulnerable someone might be to developing substance use disorder.
Is Addiction Genetic?
Abusive drugs work on the brain’s reward system, which primarily affects dopamine levels. The way this function operates depends on genetics and environmental factors. A recent study found that a small infectious agent can integrate within a gene that regulates dopamine activity.
Researchers noted that this integration happens more frequently in people with substance use disorders. The connection is one of the first ones to link drug addiction with genetics. Other studies believe that close to 40 to 60 percent of someone’s vulnerability to addiction comes from genetic factors.
Studies on Genetic Predisposition and Drug Addiction
Years ago, Harvard started examining incidents of drug addiction among identical twins. The study had over 8,000 individuals, with a mix of identical twins and fraternal twins. By the end of the research, 10 percent of the study’s population struggled with addiction to at least one substance; the rate was slightly higher than the national average. However, nearly double the incidence was found among identical twins.
The connection between substance use disorder among identical twins, who are genetically exact, leads researchers to believe that addiction could be genetic.
The DNA Connection
Another study analyzed the DNA of family members who are drug or alcohol addicts with those who aren’t. The idea is to isolate the genetic variations that increase addictive behaviors. They found that people without the serotonin receptor risk are at greater risk of addiction to alcohol or cocaine. The study also found that people who refrain from smoking because it makes them feel sick, are likely to carry an alternate gene which triggers those ill-side effects.
While there’s much more to know about these addiction genes, so far, there’s a connection. As with other chronic illnesses, genetic traits are hereditary, which is a crucial factor in understanding addiction among families.
Dopamine Spikes and Addiction
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) wants to identify the gene variations that make someone vulnerable to drug addiction. The study maps DNA sequences in drug addicts, hoping to isolate addiction genes. So far, researchers talk about a specific protein that has a relationship with drug addiction and learning. Mice with low levels of this protein took longer to learn their way around a maze and were more sensitive to cocaine.
Although we need more research, preliminary discussions indicate such protein can play a role in addiction to nicotine, alcohol, morphine, and heroin. This connection circles back to how these drugs affect dopamine and our brain’s reward system.
The Addiction Gene
Another breakthrough study found even more connections between our genes and addiction. In the study, researchers found that almost every drug that triggers addiction, including cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates work though a single protein that operates in a part of the brain related to addiction. The protein plays a role in the connections and actions of almost all neurotransmitters across the brain.
When researchers removed the protein from the brains of mice, they found that the mice were no longer responding to abuse drugs. Maybe this will be the future of drug addiction treatment.
Environmental Factors and Drug Addiction
More and more evidence points out that environmental factors, such as stress, can trigger epigenetic changes that promote drug addiction. These changes are gene expressions that don’t alter DNA itself.
For example, a stressful situation triggers the release of steroid hormones. These hormones trigger various alterations throughout the body that induce epigenetic changes. The brain’s reward system is highly susceptible to these stress hormones. Researchers believe the interaction between these hormones and the reward system can trigger the onset of addiction and stress-induced relapse.
Co-Occurring Disorder and Their Role in Addiction
As if drug addiction wasn’t complicated in itself, hereditary mental disorders also play a role. While it’s challenging to figure out which came first, the link between mental illness and substance abuse incidence can’t be ignored. Like an addiction, mental disorders can run in families, which adds a co-occurring factor in hereditary addictive behaviors.
It ties back to the environmental factors as well. Studies looking at these external influences indicate an eight-fold increase in drug and alcohol addictions by adults who grew up in households with at least one parent exhibiting addictive behaviors.
The same connection exists in children with households where mental illness is present. These children are at a higher risk of drug dependency later in life, mostly because they choose to self-medicate rather than treat their conditions.
The Importance of Awareness
In the US, drug addiction affects one in four families. There’s no doubt genetics plays a huge role in the development of addictions. However, genetics isn’t the only determinate. Awareness of addictive tendencies and education about the dangers of drug addiction is paramount.
If addiction runs within a family, remaining vigilant about the warning signs, someone is using drugs can help prevent addiction. Ongoing efforts to educate and learn about the external factors that play a role in addiction also helps. Environmental factors such as stress, social pressures, access to alcohol and drugs, and abuse are all important.
Even if someone isn’t aware of genetic predisposition, awareness about drug addiction and its adverse side effects is crucial for prevention.
Getting Help for Drug Addiction
If you or someone you love is struggling with drugs or alcohol abuse, know that addiction is a chronic disease that has treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help prevent the development of addiction and prevent epigenetic changes.
Physical activity can help reduce negative feelings and stress, which can reduce those stress-induced epigenetic changes, thus decreasing the risk of developing addictive behaviors or stress-induced relapse.
At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our addiction treatment programs integrate various cognitive therapies and other evidence-based addiction treatments to offer a comprehensive and personalized plan to help those struggling with substance use disorder.
Contact us today to learn more about addiction treatment and how you or your loved one can live a clean and sober lifestyle.