MAT Care Clinics has received a lot of inquiries over the years about the impact of the legendary “addiction gene.” Over centuries of humanity’s battle against addiction, people have taken note of family patterns around substance abuse. Parents and their offspring would exhibit the same propensity for addiction, repeating through generations. In the 20th century, with human genome mapping, scientists wondered if there was an addiction gene. Was there something particular about addiction that could be passed down, like any other condition, from parent to child?
Heritability is a statistic used in research to estimate the degree of variation of a trait in a population due to inherited genetic factors. The heritability of an addiction gene is controversial and at the crossroads of the heated debate of nature vs. nurture. Are people ruled by their genetics or by their environment and upbringing? Before delving into the subject, it’s essential to clarify that the debate has reached the consensus that it is nature AND nurture. Essentially, genes (nature) have an impact, but upbringing (nurturing) provides different stimuli that result in other ways those genes come into play. So, if you struggle with addiction, you should not blame your genes or surroundings because the answer lies in both.
Addiction is a complicated, multidimensional subject with many different triggers, not dictated by a particular gene or a bad environment. However, as science progresses, our understanding of a genetic pull toward types of addictions transforms from a hazy guess to a distinct possibility. This article explains recent developments in understanding the addiction gene and the root causes behind substance abuse.
Fact One: We’re Not That Different
It’s important to consider basic genetics to understand the addiction gene. Genes can be understood as the basic unit of heredity, just as the number 1 makes up the basic unit of mathematics, and everything else is an accumulation of 1s. We get genes from our parents, and they get them from their parents, and so forth. They contain the information that forms our physical and biological traits. The Human Genome Project has estimated that people have between 20,000 to 25,000 genes, and humans are 99.9% genetically identical.
That .1% difference accounts for what makes us genetically different. Interacting with this is the field of epigenetics, which studies how your environment impacts your genetic expression. These epigenetic changes can also be hereditable, meaning your ancestors’ environment could impact your life. An example is how a mother’s diet during pregnancy affects her child’s longevity without changing underlying genetics.
These two fields interact to bring us what we know about the addiction gene today.
Fact Two: There’s More Than One “Addiction Gene”
What we typically call the “addiction gene” are, in fact, several genes that interface drugs when they enter the body. Some interact with our reward pathways and receptors, others with our metabolism. Here is a list of known addiction genes that impact sobriety.
- DRD2: This dopamine receptor is the most studied addiction gene to date. Dopamine is the famous “happy hormone” that rewards our body for doing what it needs to survive, like eating. The DRD2 gene is one of the brain’s behavior reinforcement mechanisms. Experiments on rats and human populations have shown that this gene correlates with higher rates of (among others) alcohol, cocaine, and opioid addiction.
- GABRA2: To vastly simplify what is a very complex gene, GABRA2 is a receptor for GABA, which is a prevalent neurotransmitter. GABA sends messages to your brain to slow down so it doesn’t get overstimulated, and it’s related to stress and anxiety. There is some connection between this and alcohol metabolism. Key mutations in GABRA2 have consistently shown an association with alcohol.
- The Stress Genes: A variety of genes in the human body impact how humans react to stressful situations. They have different responsibilities, such as transporting serotonin, which does many things regarding regulating anxiety and emotion. Since emotion and addiction go hand-in-hand, they are considered addiction genes, and their presence suggests emotional regulation is a critical defense against addiction.
- Other Chemical Function Genes: Scientists discovered about 400 locations in the genome considered addiction genes because they regulate chemical functions in the brain. Some influence message transmission along synapses (the body’s circuit that connects the brain to the body). Their presence correlates with smoking and alcohol addiction.
- HIST1H2BD: This addiction gene produces proteins for the nucleus of the cell. Its presence is associated with cocaine addiction.
- CHRNA2: This gene contains the information to make a protein that moves muscles. It’s associated with cannabis addiction.
Remember, this list is not dispositive. Scientists frequently discover new addiction genes. As technology improves and research continues, we will have a deeper understanding of how genes impact addiction, and not simply that they do.
Fact Three: It’s Nature AND Nurture AND More!
It’s also important not to fall into genetic determinism. The presence of one or more of these genes does not mean addiction is guaranteed. Your environment, social circle, habits, and upbringing significantly influence genetic expression. Picture the genes you receive from your parents as watercolors. You have Titanium White, Prussian Blue, Phthalo Green, and Van Dyke Brown, which for the sake of comparison, we’ll say is the addiction gene. Life is the canvas on which you paint.
Your picture can have a lot of brown if it is a muddied day, or you could fill it with green grass and not a spot of brown. Just because it’s in your palette doesn’t mean you must use it! That is how the environment interacts with genes; it suggests how you express them but does not dictate absolutes. You can get up in the morning and drink or commit to a team sport, making you far more likely to do that rather than hit the bottle. Different behavior results in different outcomes, so enrolling kids in afterschool programs dramatically decreases instances of drug use.
There is no one addiction gene, and even if there were, life is full of joy and support systems which means it never has to take over your life.
MAT Care Clinics and the Addiction Gene
At MAT Care Clinics, we aim to help you beat addiction and start your lifelong path to sobriety. We offer top-of-the-line therapy, sober homes, partial hospitalization programs, and outpatient therapy, among other innovative forms of wellness. Recovery is a lifelong process, and our team of experts is ready to lend a compassionate hand.
It all starts with a phone call. Get in touch by calling (833) 662-0628 or contact us through our website and take steps toward recovery today.