Genetics and AddictionChemical addiction and behavioral addiction have several underlying causes, including parental drug use, poverty, peer pressure and a history of trauma. What many people don’t know is that genetic factors also play an important role in determining whether someone develops an addiction to drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviors. Keep reading to learn how someone’s genetic makeup influences the risk of addiction.

The Brain’s Reward System

Before exploring the genetic components of addiction, it’s important to understand how substance use affects the brain. In humans, the brain has a reward system made up of several regions. These regions communicate using dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in processing rewards and motivating people to repeat certain behaviors. This reward system is what makes people feel good when they fall in love, get a good grade on a test or eat a delicious meal. 

Although dopamine has positive effects on the nervous system, it also plays a role in alcohol dependence, drug abuse and compulsive behaviors like gambling, shopping and overeating. When someone drinks alcohol, uses drugs or engages in compulsive behavior, a flood of dopamine creates a connection between the behavior and the resulting feelings of pleasure. 

Genetic Aspects of Addiction

In genetics, a genotype is the genetic material that can be passed from parent to child. The term can be used to refer to a person’s entire genome (all genetic material) or a single set of genes. Phenotype refers to a person’s characteristics, including physical traits and behaviors. Although environmental factors do contribute to people’s physical and behavioral characteristics, genotypes and phenotypes play a critical role. 

Gene Variations

Some gene variations are associated with chemical addiction and behavioral addiction, demonstrating that addiction has a genetic component. For example, researchers have determined that variations in the CHRNA5, CHRNA3 and CHRNB4 genes may play a role in the development of tobacco addiction.

Variations that result in fewer dopamine receptors in the brain may also influence the risk of alcohol abuse or drug addiction. Scientists have been able to identify several specific genes involved in addiction, including genes that affect the brain’s reward system.

  •             The MAOA and COMT genes may be involved in a lack of control associated with addiction.
  •             Several genes, including COMT, NPY and SLC6A4, help determine how well a person copes with stress. In some individuals, a variation in one of these genes may make it difficult to manage stress in healthy ways, increasing susceptibility.
  •             Genes may also affect the functioning of the brain’s reward system. These genes include CHRNA5, OPRM1 and DRD2.
  •             Variations in OPRM1 may also influence whether an individual responds well to addiction treatment.
  •             Variations in the HTR2B gene may result in increased impulsivity, making it more likely that an individual will develop some type of addiction.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that genes are responsible for about 50% of the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Genes also affect things like how quickly the body breaks down drugs and how many dopamine receptors a person has in their brain, making genetics an important component of drug addiction as well.

Environmental Factors Involved in Addiction

Just because people have mutations in certain genes doesn’t mean they’ll definitely develop some type of addiction. Gene variations simply increase the risk of addiction; however, a combination of genetic and environmental factors can increase the risk even more.

Home Environment

Addiction Environmental Impact on the FamilyPeople are more likely to develop addictions if they live in stressful environments. Sources of stress include domestic violence, divorce, conflict among family members, sexual abuse and physical abuse. Heightened stress levels increase the risk of many types of addiction, but researchers have found a strong link between stressful home environments and opioid use. In a study published in Addictive Behaviors, Heffernan et al. report that opiate abuse is more common in people with a history of childhood trauma. When faced with stressful circumstances, some people self-medicate by drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Living with a parent who misuses alcohol or drugs can also increase an individual’s risk of developing an addiction later in life. One reason for the increased risk is that seeing a parent use alcohol or drugs normalizes substance use, making children more likely to use the same substances when they’re older. Parental substance use can also lead to increased levels of stress. For example, family members may argue about a parent’s substance abuse, resulting in ongoing conflict. Therefore, an individual with a family history of substance abuse has a greater risk of developing an addiction of their own.

Even poverty can affect an individual’s risk of developing an addiction at some point. Poverty alone doesn’t cause addiction; however, it affects self-esteem, stress levels, access to health care and the amount of social support an individual has available.

Peer Pressure

Friends are an important part of life, but how they behave can have negative consequences. This is especially true when it comes to substance use. In some cases, friends pressure each other into drinking alcohol or using illicit substances. Someone who’s trying to stop drinking or using drugs may have friends who make fun of them or say they’re no fun if they don’t use. When peer pressure is combined with any of the genetic variations involved in addiction, the risk of developing a substance use disorder increases.

Cultural Expectations

Cultural expectations also influence a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction, especially when it comes to alcohol abuse. Movies, television shows, magazines and books depict drinking alcohol as fun and sometimes glamorous, and underage drinking is almost a rite of passage at some colleges and universities. It can be difficult for a young person to ignore these cultural influences, causing them to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

Helpful Resources

At Changing Tides, we recommend that our clients and their family members watch Pleasure Unwoven, a film that explains recent research into which areas of the brain are involved in addiction. The DVD has helped many of our clients and their loved ones better understand the disease of addiction and its physical and psychological effects.

Help for Alcohol Addiction and Drug Addiction

Thousands of people are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and some of them are dependent on multiple substances. Because addiction is a disease, it must be treated with a combination of medical and behavioral approaches. There’s no way to reverse the genetic risk factors of addiction, but it’s possible to mitigate certain environmental factors.

If you’re struggling to overcome an addiction, help is available. Changing Tides is a beachfront rehabilitation center staffed by professionals with extensive experience treating alcoholism, opioid addiction, cannabis addiction and addictions to a variety of other substances.

Changing Tides offers a real-world environment, giving you plenty of opportunities to improve your coping skills while you address the underlying causes of your addiction. To learn more about our inpatient and partial hospitalization addiction treatment programs, contact Changing Tides at 252-715-3905.