Substance Abuse and Genetics

Genetics is One Factor in Addiction

Factors for substance abuse are complex and varied. The development of an addiction is influenced by multiple biological, familial, psychological and sociocultural factors. In our societies, everyone has access to drugs and alcohol, some people use them and some people become addicted. However, not all people who use substances will become addicted, dependent or even use them regularly. Similar upbringing, environmental factors, rate of abuse for a drug and peer influence still do not mean that people will struggle with drug addiction.

Genetics account for only around half of the reasons for a person becoming an addict. There is no one particular addiction gene but a number of different genetic and biological factors that make someone more or less vulnerable to becoming an addict. Genetics are thought to contribute to the development of heavy substance abuse, although environmental and social factors are necessary to direct a person into that problem.

Genes Matter

Studies have shown that no gene or set of genes will directly cause a person to become a drug abuser or engage in drug taking behavior Genes are important in the control of behavior. If a gene is absent, a protein that controls the development or function of a physiological system may not be produced. In certain cases the impact may be obvious, such as in the case of mental retardation or certain diseases. In other cases the impact of genes on behavior may be less obvious but just as important in a person’s development. This is the case when genetic factors produce a tendency or predisposition to respond in a certain manner. Such is believed to be the influence of genes on a number of behavioral traits and disorders, including alcoholism and drug dependence. Thus, genes are not the sole determinant of alcoholism or drug dependence, but their presence or absence may increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol or drug dependent.

Genetic Predisposition & Vulnerability

Genetic predisposition is considered important in developing a drug or alcohol abuse problem. It is suggested that individuals who have a parent or grandparent who has an addiction are more vulnerable to addiction. This is not to say that people who are born into a family who has substance abuse problems will have the same problems, it simply means that they may be more susceptible to developing an addiction. They may find it harder to quit once if they become addicted, or have more severe withdrawal symptoms.

Vulnerability to substance abuse is also influenced by demographic, environmental, behavioral and personality factors. Poverty, previous sexual abuse, rebelliousness, delinquency, incarceration and peer drug use are also issues that contribute to a persons vulnerability to substance abuse. Without these addictional factors, it is assumed that a person will not develop a substance abuse problem even if they have a parent who has suffered with a chronic alcohol or drug abuse problem.

Susceptibility to Addiction

A person does not inherit a substance abuse, they inherit a susceptibility to it. People who have a susceptibility may never develop a problem with drugs or alcohol if they are not exposed to other factors of addiction like environment or sociocultural issues. Additionally, a person who does not have a genetic factor of substance abuse can still develop an addiction which may be passed on to future generations.

Genetics may have a place in the transition from recreational drug-taking behavior to established drug patterns of abuse. These genetic factors may include personality traits, mental health, physiological reactions to drugs such as the case of severity of hangovers and risk taking behaviors. Genetics could also play a part in determining the type of drug a person may abuse however this is also influenced by peer and environmental factors.

Parental Alcoholism

Parental alcoholism is known to contribute significantly to the risk of a child developing the same condition. This may occur for genetic reasons, but it would also be affected by personality traits, exposure to alcohol and an alcoholic lifestyle, peer pressure and mental health. For male children, this risk of developing an addiction is up to 8 times higher than for female children of alcoholics. Behavior is considered the biggest factor in this development as disinhibiting and thrill-seeking traits are more apparent in boys.

Alcoholism, however, is not simply caused by genetics and should never be an excuse for developing an addiction. It is known that alcoholism can develop as s response to significant personal issues, stress, to deal with mental health conditions, from peer pressure and many other reasons. Family does play a large part in influencing a persons decision to use or not use alcohol or other substances.

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