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How much of a role does genetics play in addiction? Substantial research has emerged that concluded it is more prevalent than one may think. There is a genetic link between whether a person’s habits will become addictions. This link is called epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. In terms of addiction, this refers to the dysregulation of dopamine synthesis in the brain’s reward center. 

Changes in DNA?

Environment or the choices people make can restructure DNA at the cellular level or at an even more micro level. Each cell type in the human body contains the same genetic information; epigenetic regulatory systems enable the development of different cell types, such as skin, liver, or nerve cells, as a response to the environment. These epigenetic markers can affect health and even the expression of the traits passed to offspring. For example, when a person uses cocaine, it can mark the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction. Increased levels of these altered proteins correspond with drug-seeking behaviors in animals.

Furthermore, exposure to drugs or stress in a person’s social or cultural environment can change both gene expression and gene function. In some cases, this may persist throughout an individual’s life. Research posits that genes can play a part in how a person responds to his or her environment, placing some people at higher risk for disease than others. This is where epigenetics comes into play when thinking of mental illnesses. It is possible for two people in the same family to “inherit” borderline personality disorder which is completely dependent on environment and genes, whether their environments were the same or not. This is not to say that the third generation will definitely be diagnosed with BPD, but that they are at higher risk unless their environment changes. This is where the concept of “breaking the cycle” comes into play.

Genetics and Increased Risk

There is a complex link between epigenetic mutations during fetal development, early childhood, and adolescence with an increased risk of substance use disorders. Several studies have been conducted on families, identical and fraternal twins, and siblings. These studies suggest a genetic link to addiction. It is estimated that an increased risk of developing substance use disorders is inherited through genetic and epigenetics at a rate of 40 to 72%. In other words, using drugs can alter a person’s genetics which may lead to an increased risk of their offspring developing substance use disorders. 

Recent advances in DNA analysis are allowing researchers to understand genetic interactions by studying a person’s entire genome simultaneously. There are techniques such as genome-wide association studies (GWAS), whole-genome sequencing, and exome sequencing that identify variations in DNA sequences called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These are differences in just a single letter of the genetic code from one person to another. If an SNP appears more often in people with a disease than those without, it is thought to either directly affect their predisposition to that disease or act as an indicator for other genetic variations. 

Nature and Nurture

Genetic dispositions should not be looked at as nature vs. nurture, but nature and nurture, because a person’s environment is directly related to changes in their epigenetic makeup, especially if that environment involves illicit drug use. Research suggests that a person’s drug use can be directly linked to who is in their environment. While this research was done on lab rats which showed an epigenetic effect from their cage mates, researchers assert that these findings would be highly probable in humans as well. This is where the research is limited, however. 

Epigenetics also plays a role in how a person will respond to medication-assisted treatments. Many mental health professionals understand that one medication is not a cure-all for everyone. Even members of immediate family, such as parents and siblings, react to medications differently. This is why it is important for treatment to be tailored to a person’s needs, or have the ability to be changed for a specific need. A person’s genes directly influence the numbers and types of receptors in an individual’s brain, how quickly their bodies metabolize drugs, and how well they respond to different medications. 

Gathering Data

Learning more about epigenetics and the genetic basis of addiction will eventually advance the science of addiction recovery. It has only been in the past 10 years that the science of addiction and how to best treat it has been in very high demand. Many states are citing substance abuse as a public health crisis. This further points to an environmental effect on epigenetics with regards to addiction. If a person is at a higher risk for developing a substance abuse issue, and they are in a demographic where substance abuse is rampant, their chances of avoiding a substance use disorder are slimmer than a person with lower risk factors.

The science behind disorders like addiction and mental health is something that is constantly being studied, and we learn new things about the human brain every day. This article is not to say that there is no factor of personal choice or responsibility in drug abuse, it’s just an exploration of the ways our genes influence our behaviors and health without us realizing. This is why self-knowledge is so important. We need to learn more about our bodies and health to understand what we are predisposed to. One way to learn more about ways in which we can avoid increased risks for addiction and mental health issues is psychoeducation, something we touched on in another article this month. If you feel you could benefit from therapies like psychoeducation, please call The Guest House Ocala at (855) 483-7800. We are taking extra steps to ensure the health and safety of our clients and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.