Is Addiction Caused by Genetics?

Lunesta AbuserEvery night, a woman comes home from work and has a glass of wine. She doesn’t consider her evening ritual complete unless she sees that wine inside her glass. Her behavior can be explained in one of two ways – she could have a habit or she could have an addiction.

An article in Medical News Today suggests that a habit is something a person can control. Someone with a habit could decide to do something different, and then follow up with that choice immediately. If the woman had a habit, she could just stop. But an addiction is a behavior that’s outside of a person’s control. At that point, the woman can’t stop drinking. If there’s alcohol to be had, she will drink it. She’ll drink even if she doesn’t want to do so.

How does a habit move into an addiction? For many, the answer has to do with genetics.

Genes and Addiction

Genes are a little like architectural blueprints. Genes specify what structures will look like and what those structures can do. And they’re passed down through the generations, so you have genes from your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents and so on. Some of those genes could put you at risk of addiction.

In an overview article from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, researchers suggest that there are a number of genes that could boost the risk of an addiction. For example, some types of genes seem to make drugs more enjoyable. People who have these genes get a bigger kick from the drugs they take, and since the drugs are more rewarding for them, they tend to take these drugs more frequently. Similarly, some genes reduce the impact of withdrawal symptoms, so people who have these genes get all the high of a drug without all of the lows. Having these genes also makes drugs more rewarding, so people who have these genes might be more likely to take drugs.

Having genetic factors like this seems to make the brain just more vulnerable to the dangers drugs can hold. Those genes don’t tend to bend and shift depending on outside influences, like family behavior. For example, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence suggests that studies done on adopted babies from alcoholic parents found persistent addictions. When these babies were separated at birth, and even when some went into homes without alcoholic parents, they still developed alcoholism at an increased rate.

Studies like this suggest that the genes have the capacity to make the brain at least a little bit more vulnerable to the power of drugs. When that vulnerability meets opportunity, an addiction can follow.

Can Genes Alone Cause Addiction?

dbtWhile it’s clear that genes have a role to play in an addiction, people who have these genes simply aren’t destined to become addicted to drugs. For example, in a study in LiveScience, researchers found that people with addictions shared the same type of brain abnormalities as their non-addict siblings. Both sets of people had a reduced sense of self-control. In theory, they both should have developed addictions. When self-control is impaired, people aren’t able to stop using once they start. The brain simply has no ability to stop the use. But some didn’t get addictions.

They didn’t get addictions, in part, because they didn’t use drugs. Officials with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) make this point plainly. Genes make a person more vulnerable to drug abuse, but in addition to genes, people must have the opportunity to use drugs. They must have drugs nearby that they can take, and in order for an addiction to really take hold, they must be able to take those drugs without impediment. That introduction of drugs into an already vulnerable brain is what’s responsible for an addiction. Those with vulnerabilities that never take drugs just don’t get addicted.

About 40 to 60 percent of a person’s predisposition to addiction can be blamed on genetic factors, NIDA says. The rest comes from other factors, including:

  • Family history
  • Peer pressure
  • Environment
  • Stress

When these forces collide, a vulnerable brain is exposed to the damage that drugs can bring, and when that happens, a person’s choice to dabble in a drug can be transformed into a crushing need to use drugs that has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with illness.

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The specific type of drug chosen may also play a role in the inevitability of an addiction, per a study in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Here, researchers assessed the likelihood of addictions in people taking different types of drugs, and they found that cocaine was the most addictive agent, while hallucinogens and stimulants were the least addicting.

This study suggests that not all drugs work on brain tissues in the same way, so not all drugs leave the same kinds of changes behind. By choosing one type of drug over another, a person with a genetic vulnerability to an addiction could skirt the problem altogether and emerge with only a recreational drug habit, rather than a persistent drug addiction.

Similarly, having a terrible inaugural experience could make people less likely to develop an addiction. A person who takes heroin once and is assaulted while on heroin may find that the whole experience was so distasteful and so awful that the drug holds no appeal. Even if that person’s brain is vulnerable to addiction, the terrible experience could make the drug seem less rewarding, and that could keep the person from ever using the drug again. That abstinence could keep an addiction from forming.

There’s some evidence that using a specific amount of drugs and enduring brain changes associated with that drug use can make those brain tissues more susceptible to secondary bouts of addiction. For example, in a study in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, researchers found that people with a history of addiction were more likely to relapse when they were exposed to some kind of stress. That stress trigger interacted with the addiction pathway, sparking a movement from voluntary to involuntary drug use.

Studies like this suggest that drugs have the ability, in and of themselves, to cause brain changes that make a person more vulnerable to losing control over drug use. When a person takes enough drugs, over a long enough period, the damage done is similar to the damage seen in people with a genetic propensity to develop an addiction.

That seems to indicate that addictions can spark in people who have no genetic predisposition to the behavior. Do enough drugs, for a long enough period of time, and the damage will be large enough to mimic a genetic predisposition to an addiction. People with that kind of damage simply can’t go back to recreational, occasional use. Their brain cells have been altered and their minds forever changed, regardless of the genes they were born with.


Moving Past Genes

Healthy people with healthy genesClearly, people who have a family history of addiction should steer clear of all addictive drugs. Their brain cells are likely primed to find these substances rewarding, so they’re much more likely to progress to an addiction at top speed. Taking in anything, in a brain that’s primed for a big response, could lead to dangerous addictions.

Similarly, people who have a personal history of addiction shouldn’t debate whether or not their addictions come from genes, and they shouldn’t test their resolve to find out where genes fit in. They should simply stop their use, right now, and leave those substances behind for good.

It’s also important to note that, even though genetics play a role in an addiction, people who have the altered set of genes can use their brainpower to gain control. In a structured therapy program, they can learn to give voice to the unconscious desires that drive them to take drugs. With that work, they can learn to keep control over their behaviors, so the drugs and the genes don’t control them. Instead, they control their own choices concerning drugs. It may sound like a slight shift, but it can have a huge impact.

And it’s worthwhile for anyone who has a history of addiction. Whether your behaviors are brand new, and you’re not sure how to get back to the life you recently left behind, or whether you’ve been dealing with this problem for years and years, and you can’t even remember a sober life, you can get control through a treatment program. There’s no reason you shouldn’t start now.

In a formal treatment program at The Oaks at La Paloma, we can help you to understand and overcome. We use science-based treatments that have the proven ability to help you to get well, and we use social-based treatments to help you learn from your peers. All of that work takes place on our relaxing campus, so you’ll be surrounded by healing and peace. Just call the number at the top of the page, and our admissions coordinators can help you get started.