Two people can undergo the same back surgery and will be prescribed the same opioid painkillers for their recovery. However, in many cases, one of them develops an addiction to the pills while the other gets better and goes back to work. Why is it that some people seem predisposed to addiction? Is addiction hereditary?
One possible answer is that addiction, just like other diseases, can be passed on through genes from parents to their children. In this article, we’ll look at how addiction can be hereditary and studies that offer evidence of this fact.
The Roots of Addiction
Before digging into studies linking genetics to addiction, it’s important to clarify this point: just because a person has relatives who struggle with addiction does not mean they are bound to develop an addiction. As with everything in life, the root causes of addiction are a combination of many factors, and family history and genetics are just a piece of the puzzle.
To return to our initial example—if the person who has back surgery and takes opioid painkillers has supportive family and friends, has a steady job, feels fulfilled in daily life and is generally healthy and happy—most likely, the addictive tendency coded in their genes will not get a strong foothold. The environment around that person and their general well-being sets them in a better position to be unaffected by those genes and other biological factors that could lead to a lifelong struggle with addiction.
However, if the person who has back surgery and takes opioid painkillers has a history of trauma, has a dysfunctional or abusive family, has limited social support, is unable to return to work, and has a lot of stress in daily life—that person is at a much higher risk of succumbing to those genes that predispose them to develop addiction. The other factors like personal history, social connections, and stress level can create a perfect storm that can fuel the development of addiction—and make it harder to recover. While the roots of addiction are complex and often convoluted, scientists hope that by learning more about the genetic factor and hereditary links to addiction, they can provide better solutions and treatments for those in recovery.
Hereditary Addiction Links and Studies
To understand how addiction can be passed on through genes, it is key to briefly summarize what it means for something to be genetic vs. hereditary and how genes can predispose a person to develop addiction. When a disease or trait is genetic, such as certain cancers, it means that the genes in certain cells have mutated and changed their behavior (dividing constantly as in the case of cancer). This is genetic but could be caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. When something is hereditary, it means that certain genes or gene expression or function is passed on from parent to child.
In the case of addiction, several studies have shown how there is a genetic component that can predispose someone to develop addiction. There are also environmental or external factors that can determine whether or not these hereditary traits get “switched on” and lead to addiction or not.
For example, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis did a study on genetic factors in cannabis use disorder and successfully located two areas in human DNA that put a person at a higher risk of developing this substance use problem. They found that nearly 20 percent of cannabis users may develop problematic use and nearly 50 percent of that risk is genetic. Another study published in Nature Genetics shared that a genetic sample of 1.2 million people revealed that tobacco and alcohol use have locatable and recognizable genetic variants connected to a person’s use of these substances.
Twin studies have been key to learning more about the hereditary and genetic factors in substance use disorders. One study of twins in the U.S. published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (known as the “The Virginia Twin Study”), researchers found that genes play a larger role in the development of alcoholism than environmental factors based on male twins who were raised together and in different households through adoption.
Other research on genetics has found that environmental factors like stress can cause changes to gene expression or function. This field of study is called epigenetics, and epigenetics can be hereditary so that a mother whose gene function has been changed due to the stress of trauma, like physical or sexual abuse, can pass that on to her children.
Because stress has neurological effects and can change the behavior of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, this can also be a root cause that predisposes someone to addiction. These neurotransmitters play a huge role in the brain’s reward system, thus, parents whose epigenetics were altered by stress can have a child who, by nature, has a harder time managing stress. Stress and the reward system play a major role in addiction and substance abuse, which is why these epigenetic changes are key to understanding how the disease and predisposition to substance use disorders are passed through family lines.
These are only a few of the studies that link addiction to genes and attempt to answer the question “is addiction hereditary?” More progress in this field is coming and may change how we treat and understand addiction.
Other Addiction Factors
Outside of the hereditary causes, external factors have a large role in the development of addiction. In the Virginia Twin Study, researchers also found that early in life, access and exposure to drugs or alcohol, social influences, and environment at home had a larger impact on the substance use behavior of the subjects they studied. While genetics played a role, these external factors also had an effect and could influence whether those genes coded for addiction took hold or not.
A huge trigger for substance abuse and addiction also relates to mental health, which can be hereditary or can be related to life events. Someone who loses their job, gets divorced, or has a near-death experience in a car accident can become depressed or may develop anxiety and could begin drinking alcohol or using drugs to self-medicate. These external factors can lead the person to progress to a substance use disorder that began because of a specific experience or trauma in their life.
Essentially, anything that increases stress can put a person at a higher risk for addiction. Financial struggles, relationship problems, abuse, traumatic events, and mental health issues can all be other factors that contribute to the development of addiction alongside any genetic factors that make a person more vulnerable to substance abuse.
With all of the research being done on the roots of addiction, there is hope that new medications and treatment approaches can be developed that are more effective at helping people to recover and heal fully from addiction.
If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and need help, the expert clinical team at DreamLife Recovery is here to help. We’re located just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and are ready to help you get on the reliable and proven path to recovery. Contact our admissions team if you’d like to know more about our treatments, facility, and get ready to get your dream life.
- “Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction Accessed 21 Apr. 2021
- “Real Teens Ask: Is Addiction Hereditary?” – Bellum, Sara; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 18 Feb., 2011, https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-addiction-hereditary
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