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State of Addiction: Genetics plays role in addiction, but aren't only factor

Genes play an important role in whether a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, experts say, but they don't guarantee anything. Researchers say a combination of gene interaction and environmental factors are at play when an individual becomes addicted to a substance.
by Andrew Knittle Published: March 12, 2012

Genes play an important role in whether a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, experts say, but they don't guarantee anything.

There are scientists studying the role of genes in addiction who believe that a single gene is not responsible for addiction. They say it's more likely the interaction of several genes, combined with other factors, which lead a person toward addiction.

Dr. Glen Hanson, a researcher with the University of Utah who studies genetics and its role in addiction, says that while some people are genetically prone to becoming an addict, it's not a given they'll become one.

“I think it's important to understand that because you're vulnerable doesn't mean it's inevitable,” Hanson said. “It just says that you got to be careful and that if circumstances are right, the chances that you'll get into difficultly are greater than most people.

“It's important to appreciate those. Then we can use them to our advantage instead of those things working against us.”

Hanson says there isn't a single gene that causes addiction to drugs and alcohol. He says researchers aren't sure exactly how many there are.

“This is a very complex genetic issue,” he said. “It's not like there is an addiction gene, end of story. It's probably like there's 50 or 100 genes that can give you vulnerability under a variety of different settings or issues.”

The different ways people react to drugs, individual decision-making abilities and what started a person drinking or using show that genes are involved, Hanson said.

“Why would you continue to use it even though you appreciate it could have some serious negative consequences ... that's probably some of it coming from genetics,” he said. “Some people are good at making decisions, even as teenagers.”

Charles Joseph Shaw, a medical doctor who deals exclusively with addicts in Oklahoma City, said he's seen Hanson's theories on genes and addiction play out in real life.

“The genes always get you, in the end,” Shaw said. “I see that all the time in my practice at St. Anthony's.”

Shaw said one of the first things he asks a patient is whether they have any family members who struggle with addiction.

“It's amazing,” he said. “Most all of them do. Sometimes it skips a generation, but if one or both of your parents has an addiction, you could have the gene, so to speak. That's why some people have to be careful while others can take it or leave it.”

Brain interaction

Hanson said people become addicted to drugs and other substances because of the way they interact with the brain.

“Virtually all of the drugs of abuse have one thing in common, as far as the neurobiology goes,” he said. “Every one of them activates a dopamine system.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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