Using the genetics of addiction to improve treatment

Using the genetics of addiction to improve treatment

Substance use disorders result from genetic and environmental factors combined, which led researchers to look at changes in gene expressions to predict susceptibility to addiction for some time now. But how can genetic research improve addiction treatment?

A recent report suggests that instead of investing in expensive gene identification efforts, researchers should first focus on outlining specific strategies that use genetic information to improve addiction treatment considering the fact that alcohol and other drug use disorders are between 50 and 70 percent heritable — more heritable than depression or eating disorders.

“People are always surprised by just how much differences in our genetic makeup influence the likelihood that we will develop substance use problems,” said author Danielle Dick,  Ph.D., researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I think part of that surprise comes from the fact that we still have work to do on reducing the stigma associated with substance use problems,” she said. “We’ve come a long way from the days when alcohol or drug problems were considered a ‘moral deficit’ but we need to further raise awareness about just how important our genetic predispositions are in impacting the likelihood that any one person will develop a substance use problem.”   

Her article — dubbed ‘The Genetics of Addiction: Where Do We Go from Here?’ and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs — suggests that while there’s been incredible progress in understanding how much addiction is affected by genetics, there are still two areas that researchers don’t know much about.

“We know that genetic predispositions play a role in addiction — we are not all equally at risk of developing problems if we start using alcohol or other drugs,” she said. “But we know that environments are very important too. If we lived in a world where no alcohol was available, we would still have our own unique genetic makeups, but they would play no role in whether or not we become addicted. None of us would become addicted because the environment wouldn’t support it. The environment just trumped our genes. That’s an extreme example, but the same principle applies to anything that changes the availability of alcohol/other drugs and/or acceptance of alcohol/drug use.”  

But the author explained that researchers still don’t know what specific genes influence people’s relationships with drugs and, consequently, with substance use disorders.

She added that although experts in the field of genetic research still have many different opinions, researchers who have made progress linking genetics to other mental health conditions (such as schizophrenia) clearly demonstrated that large sample sizes will be needed to identify specific genes associated with drug addiction.

According to the report, it’s still fairly unknown to researchers and experts how genetic information can be used to prevent future substance use disorders or treat people who are already struggling with a drug addiction.

“Part of the genetic predisposition to why some people are more likely than others to develop problems is because of the way their body processes or respond to that drug,” Dick said. “But a bigger part of the genetic predisposition that influences how likely people are to develop problems is through genetically-influenced temperamental and personality traits. Some people are more drawn to risk taking. That isn’t inherently a bad thing and might even be a good thing for entrepreneurship. But it also makes people more likely to try substances and use them in risky ways. Knowing your predisposition and how it might put you at risk for developing problems associated with addiction, can help people make better life choices for themselves.”

Because of the elements that remain unknown, Dick suggested that it’s important for professionals to identify… (continue reading)