The Role of Genetics as a Risk Factor in Substance Use and Addiction

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Genetics is believed to play a significant role in substance use and addiction, contributing to an individual’s vulnerability to these conditions. In fact, research suggests that genetic factors account for approximately 40–60% of the risk of experiencing substance use disorders (SUDs). (1) Understanding the genetic factors involved in substance use disorders (SUDs) is critical for formulating effective treatment strategies. Although genetics certainly play a role, addiction is a complex disorder that is also strongly influenced by environmental, psychological, and behavioral factors.

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Can Genetics & Hereditary Factors Lead to Addictive Behaviors & Substance Use?

Genetics and hereditary factors can contribute to addictive behaviors and substance use. Research has consistently demonstrated a genetic component in the development of addiction. Certain genetic variations can make individuals more susceptible to addictive behaviors. These genetic factors can influence various aspects of addiction, such as the response to drugs, the risk of becoming dependent, and the likelihood of engaging in impulsive or risky behaviors. Also, individuals with close relatives who’ve struggled with addiction are more likely to acquire addictive tendencies themselves.

The Role of Dopamine Receptors in Genetic Susceptibility to Addiction

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward and pleasure systems and is involved in regulating motivation and reinforcement. Genetic variations (polymorphisms) in dopamine receptors can influence an individual’s response to drugs and their vulnerability to addiction. For example, variations in the gene that codes for the D2 receptor (DRD2), such as the Taq1A polymorphism, have been linked to an increased risk of substance addiction, including alcoholism and opioid dependence.

Does Genetics Account for Those With Addictive Personalities?

The term “addictive personality” is often used informally to describe a set of characteristics that may be associated with an increased risk of forming addictive behaviors. However, it’s crucial to note that this concept is ill-defined and not universally accepted in scientific research. It is a subjective way of describing certain patterns of behavior that may be seen in individuals who struggle with addictions, obsessions, or compulsions. Still, there are some common characteristics with possible genetic links, sometimes referred to as an addictive personality.

Common Characteristics With Genetic Links Include:

  • Impulsivity—Individuals who exhibit impulsivity, or a tendency to act without considering the consequences, tend to be more prone to engaging in risky or rewarding behaviors, including substance use. Impulsivity has been found to have a genetic component. (2)
  • Sensation-Seeking—A tendency to seek out new or exciting experiences may contribute to a higher risk of substance use and seeking the pleasurable effects associated with addictive substances. Certain genetic variations have been associated with higher levels of sensation-seeking. (3)
  • Difficulty in Emotional Regulation—Genetic factors have been found to contribute to individual differences in emotional dysregulation. (4) Individuals who find it challenging to manage their emotions or cope with stress may be more likely to turn to substances as a way of self-medication.

Epigenetics & the Connection Between Genes & Environmental Factors in Addiction

Epigenetic mechanisms can also influence addictive behaviors. Epigenetics refers to modifications in gene expression caused by factors outside of the DNA sequence itself, both genetic and environmental. Moreover, environmental factors like stress or trauma can activate or deactivate specific genes that may contribute to addiction. Understanding the interaction between genetics and environmental factors can provide valuable insights into the development and treatment of addiction.

What Genes Are Most Common in Those With Substance Addictions?

Several genes have been researched in relation to substance misuse, and while it is challenging to identify specific genes as the most common in those with substance addictions, in addition to the D2 gene, there are other variations that have been associated with an increased risk of addiction.

Other Genes Common In Those With Addiction Include: 

  • OPRM1 (Opioid Receptor Mu-1)—This gene codes for the mu-opioid receptor, the primary target of opioid drugs. Certain OPRM1 variants have been linked to increased susceptibility to opioid addiction. (5)
  • COMT (Catechol-O-Methyltransferase)—This gene is involved in the metabolism of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Some studies have suggested that specific COMT variants may be associated with an increased risk of substance use disorders. (6)
  • SLC6A4 (Serotonin Transporter)—This gene regulates the serotonin transporter, which is responsible for the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Variations in SLC6A4 have been studied in association with substance addiction and may be associated with differences in serotonin function and contribute to vulnerability to substance use disorders. (7)

BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)—This gene plays a role in promoting the growth and survival of neurons. Variations in the BDNF gene have been linked to differences in brain structure and function as well as susceptibility to various psychiatric conditions, including substance use disorders. (8)

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What Influence Does Genetics Have on the Formation of Mental Health Disorders?

While environmental factors also contribute, research has shown that genetic factors contribute to the susceptibility and risk of developing various mental health conditions.

Key Influences of Genetics on Psychiatric Disorders Include:

  • Genetic Vulnerability—Certain genetic variations can increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing mental health disorders and may involve inherited variations in specific genes or combinations of genes.
  • Heritability Estimates—Heritability estimates provide insights into the contribution of genetic factors to mental health disorders. They indicate the proportion of variation in a trait or disorder that can be attributed to genetic influences. Research has suggested that these estimates range from moderate to high for several mental health conditions.
  • Polygenic Nature—Many mental health disorders involve multiple genes (polygenic). Identifying the specific genes involved can be challenging, but research has found that some genetic markers are associated with certain psychiatric conditions. (9)
  • Gene-Environment Interactions—Early-life stress, trauma, substance misuse, or adverse life events can interact with genetic vulnerabilities, increasing the likelihood of developing a disorder.

How a Genetic Predisposition to Addiction Influences Addiction Treatment

Genetic susceptibility to addiction can have implications for addiction treatment. Understanding an individual’s genetic profile related to addiction can help customize treatment approaches to their specific needs.

Ways That Genetic Predisposition to Addiction Can Influence Treatment Include:

  • Treatment Response and Plan Personalization—Genetic (pharmacogenetic) testing can provide useful information about an individual’s genetic variants that may contribute to their treatment response. For example, certain variations may affect how an individual breaks down medications used in addiction treatment, allowing for customized medication choices and dosages.
  • Risk Assessment—Genetic information can help assess an individual’s risk of developing addiction, identify specific vulnerabilities, and be used to design preventive strategies to mitigate the risk.

Family Counseling and Support—Genetic predispositions to addiction often run in families. Recognizing these genetic factors can help family members understand the increased risk and take preventive measures or support their loved ones in recovery.

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(1)https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-addiction-genetic/ (2)https://neurosciencenews.com/genetics-impulsivity-psychology-3239/ (3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3031097/ (4)https://academic.oup.com/book/34972/chapter-abstract/298621551?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false (5)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6885558/ (6)https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/gene-mutation-can-raise-risk-alcohol-and-drug-abuse (7)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3717550/ (8)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425618/ (9) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-020-00865-8

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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