A person’s genes influence almost anything he or she does, from the way they talk to how they respond to their environment. The impact of genes is significant, and with over 20,000 genes in a human body, it’s impossible to ignore their effects. It also turns out, according to current research, that our genes have a say in whether we become addicted to drugs and alcohol. While researchers find it difficult to pinpoint specific genes that affect any condition, including alcoholism and drug abuse, it’s clear that there is a definite connection between genetics and addiction.
Numerous studies show that the likelihood of addiction is split evenly between genetic predisposition and other factors, such as poor coping skills. Moreover, children of addicts have a higher chance of developing an addiction. One study reports that children of alcoholics are between four and ten times more likely to become alcoholics than are children who have no close relatives who are alcoholics.
While the numbers are telling, scientists have understood for some time that our hereditary behaviors and the environment interact to form the basis of our decisions.
A person’s genes are units of DNA that make up a human genome which provides the roadmap that directs the body’s cellular activities. The DNA sequences of most people are the same, but there’s a 0.1 percent variation that’s vitally important. In diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, the mutation of a single gene is the cause.
Our genetic predisposition to addiction relates to evolutionary advantages that become hard-wired into our brains. For example, when an animal eats a particular food that it likes and derives pleasure, it will look for that food in the future.
While everyone has the potential for addiction, some people are more predisposed to it than others regardless of their genetic makeup. In other words, even if you have less of a genetic predisposition to addiction as others, you can still end up with an addiction.
However, it’s also noteworthy that people who share the same genetic markers as addicted family members may not become addicted.
There isn’t a specific gene that is responsible for alcoholism, but rather hundreds of genes that may increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol disorder. Studies show that certain combinations of genes have an active link to alcoholism, but also that behavioral genes passed down from previous generations could influence a person’s chances of becoming an alcoholic.
For example, people with mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia often come from families with a history of those disorders. Meanwhile, people with mental illness are at a higher risk for choosing substance abuse as one way to cope with their issues. But there’s no question that mental disorders may be hereditary.
Studies also show that if one of your family members is addicted to alcohol, the greater your chances of developing an addiction to other drugs such as opioids or marijuana. The reason is that addictions work in the same part of the brain. According to the experts:
While genetics account for about 50% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, many other factors may lead to substance abuse, including:
It’s important to note that genes must interact with the environment or other factors in some way for addiction or other health issues to occur. The gene is triggered by another element or remains dormant. Furthermore, some people develop addictive behaviors through lifestyle alone and not with the involvement of genes.
While current research regarding the link between genetics and addiction is promising, there remain limitations in understanding how the two work together. For instance, it remains difficult for researchers to pinpoint specific genes that affect any single condition. But research continues to show that genes act like suggestions that a person’s cells may follow.