Can you inherit an “addictive personality” from your parents?
In other words, to what degree do our genetics affect our likelihood of developing a substance use disorder? This is a question that sparks both debate and confusion. Continue reading for some insight on the topic of genes and addiction. Let’s explore the question: Does addiction run in the family?
The short answer is “yes.” Yes, genetic makeup can increase the risk of substance use disorder. However, it is very important to remember that many other factors impact these outcomes. Just because a parent struggles with a disorder does not mean their children will, too.
First and foremost, it should be noted that developing substance use disorders is as much a product of environment as it is a result of inherited traits; it’s just as much nurture as it is nature. The National Institute for Drug Abuse for Teens puts it this way:
“The risk for developing drug and alcohol problems is higher in children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs – but it is NOT a guarantee that those children will either use drugs or become addicted. In fact, most children of parents who abuse alcohol or drugs do not develop alcoholism or addiction themselves.”
Nonetheless, scientific evidence does show a relationship between what’s in our DNA and how we react to mood-altering substances. “Family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup.”
Before delving into any more detail, let’s pause. Many articles on this subject breeze over the scientific terms and throw around a lot of words like genes, DNA, and hereditary. In case you’ve misplaced your 9th grade biology textbook, here is a quick video that clearly explains the role that genes play in the human body. Then, we’ll take a closer look at the what scientists see when they study the connection between genes and substance.
The first 2 minutes and 14 seconds of this video illustrate that genes are the code within the DNA of every living thing that help determine how that thing will look and behave. (Feel free to watch the rest of the video as well.)
There are certain genes that produce proteins that result in a person having a particular physical attribute, e.g. a gene for eye color and a gene for freckles. However, genes that influence psychological characteristics are much more complicated.
According to the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center:
“Scientists will never find just one single addiction gene. Like most other diseases, addiction vulnerability is a very complex trait… Because addiction is a complex disease, finding addiction genes can be a tricky process. Multiple genes and environmental factors can add up to make an individual susceptible, or they may cancel each other out. Not every addict will carry the same gene, and not everyone who carries an addiction gene will exhibit the trait.”
In summary, addiction can “run in the family,” but external factors are equally important when considering how substance use disorders can emerge. It would be inaccurate and potentially harmful to place the blame of addiction squarely on the shoulders of our parents – or their genes. Even still, the impact of our family tree – of the traits that emerge in us because of what is coded into our DNA – are important to consider.
To address the “nature” side of addiction’s causes, scientists are developing treatments that interact with genes associated with substance misuse. Certain genes become “drug targets” for specialized interventions. An individual patient’s genetic makeup can also help doctors determine what treatment would be most effective.
If your family is genetically predisposed to addiction, Dr. Glen Hanson, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah, offers some words of wisdom on the subject:
“Because you are prone to addiction doesn’t mean that you are going to become addicted during your life. It just says that you’ve got to be careful and that if circumstances are right, the chances that you’ll get into difficulty are greater than most people’s. But it’s not inevitability. It’s vulnerability.”
Please take a moment to explore some additional reading on the matter of genetics and how it pertains to substance use disorders.
- Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction from the National Institute on Drug Abuse – An outline of the crossroads of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental impact in an area of study called epigenetics.
- Genes and Addictions, a journal article published in the US National Library of Medicine – Gives a more scientifically dense overview of the material discussed in this post.
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