It is well known that addiction seems to pass from one generation to the next. If you have a relative that is addicted, you are much more likely to become addicted yourself. That raises the question; Is addiction genetic? To answer this question, it is important to understand how addiction works and how genes play a role in each stage of addiction.
Addiction and Genetics: A Combination of Factors
According to research performed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a combination of genetic and environmental factors are responsible for an individual’s susceptibility to becoming addicted. This research determined that genetics are at least half responsible for a person’s susceptibility to addiction.
Another study on smoking addiction reflected these findings. The American Psychological Association released findings by Caryn Lerman, PhD that determined genetics play a major role in addiction. She determined that genetics were responsible for 75 percent of the inclination of a person to begin using cigarettes, 60 percent of a person’s likelihood to become addicted, and 54 percent of an addicted person’s ability to quit once addicted.
Genetic Factors in Addiction
Both of the above studies agreed that addiction is both genetic and environmental. However, there isn’t a single gene that determines addiction. Multiple addiction hereditary factors play a role in the addiction process.
Susceptiblity to Addiction
You may be wondering what leads a person to start using drugs? Many teenagers begin taking drugs due to peer pressure and a desire to fit in. Some people are simply curious about a drug, while others begin to use drugs to self-medicate. You may be surprised to find that all of these behaviors have hereditary factors.
A recent study found a correlation between peer pressure and a person’s genetics. A dopamine receptor gene known as DRD4 may play a major factor in desiring social acceptance. This gene can create a “reward sensation,” giving the person a strong desire to gain social acceptance. DRD4 is merely an example of how a single gene can play a factor in a person’s susceptibility to drug use. However, there are many other genes that impact addiction in other ways.
Intoxication and Cravings
Cravings can also be genetic. Once a person begins using a drug or performing a specific behavior, genes can help create a positive sensation, which in itself can be addictive. According to a study published this year in Cell Metabolism, a gene called FGF21 was identified to be responsible for a number of cravings, from sugary foods to alcohol and other addictive substances.
These genes can make drug use desirable to an individual. The cravings and rewards of the genes are responsible for both the “high” from the social act of drug use and the drug itself. This increases the likelihood for a person to enter into a cycle of addiction.
The “high” of a drug can become addictive to a person without a genetic predisposition to becoming addicted. However, genes such as DRD4 increase a person’s probability that he or she will become addicted. People who have genes that intensify the effects of a drug or create a stronger craving for it are much more likely to develop a serious, long-term addiction.
Is Abstaining From Drugs Genetic?
A person’s determination, willpower, and ability to power through withdrawal and end drug use is coded genetically as well. Even without any genetic precursors, withdrawal alone is very difficult and in severe cases can be life threatening. Certain genes have been identified that help make this stage of the addiction cycle more difficult for some and easier for others.
People who possess the gene Mpdz may have less severe withdrawal after abstaining from drug use. For those who lack this gene, that means that withdrawal can be more severe and become a greater driving force to continue drug use. When making the decision to stop drinking or using drugs, a person likely doesn’t know whether they possess the Mpdz gene. Finding a supervised detox facility can make a huge difference in the withdrawal and detox process.
A lack of this particular gene also makes relapse a greater possibility. The process of abstaining from drugs or alcohol could be so difficult and dangerous that the addicted person feels that they have no choice but to continue drug use.
Understanding Addiction and Genetics
Unfortunately, not many doctors have a firm understanding of how genetics impact a patient’s ability to end his or her drug use. In fact, only about 5 percent of family doctors are knowledgeable and comfortable interpreting genetic addiction testing results. Even fewer are comfortable using genetic testing to prescribe or help treat addiction for their patients.
When you ask a primary physician, “Is addiction genetic,” most would agree that it is. There is overwhelming evidence that certain genes directly impact the addiction cycle. However, few doctors understand how to best treat their patients based on genetic factors. This means that treatment for addiction may be less successful depending on a person’s unique genes. That makes finding a rehab that understands that each person is unique even more important.
For example, a patient who is more genetically susceptible to cravings should be treated for those cravings. Likewise, a patient genetically predisposed to severe withdrawal should be treated more aggressively to make their period of withdrawal less severe. A doctor needs to understand these genetic factors to provide successful, long-term treatment for the individual.
Successful Recovery and Prevention
It is important that doctors learn how certain genes can impact a patient’s addiction risks and ability to recover from addiction. If a patient has certain genetic markers for addiction, doctors can help the patient recover from addiction more successfully.
In the future, it may even be possible for genetic testing to identify a patient’s probability for becoming addicted before drug use begins. This would help physicians to better inform their patients of their risks and prevent addiction.
Addiction Is Genetic
Is addiction hereditary? Absolutely. Combined with certain environmental factors, such as peer pressure or being exposed to drug use in a person’s family, genes contribute to an individual’s addiction risks.
Genetics can’t be controlled, but being informed of a genetic predisposition to addiction can help patients and their families make changes in their environment to prevent addiction from ever occurring. A greater understanding of the impact of genetics on addiction is needed for both doctors and patients. This understanding will lead to greater prevention and treatment options and will improve a patient’s chances for success.
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.