It’s an all too common scenario: A parent discovers that their teenager is abusing drugs. They instantly ask themselves, “Where did they get this from?” For some parents, the answer isn’t far away. Maybe a family member struggled with addiction, or maybe older siblings had similar issues. It’s also common for families to blame themselves, feeling as if they fell short in their parenting role. We ultimately look for answers to where the addiction may have come from, but is this the right thing to do? Does addiction run in families?
Addiction is just like any other condition in that it does have a genetic component, and it DOES run in families. This isn’t the case for everyone; there are many addicts who come from clean, sober families and struggle with the disease their entire lives. These medical mysteries have led researchers to study the relationship between addiction and genetics in search of answers about what makes a person vulnerable to addiction.
Research Shows that Certain Genes are Linked to Addiction
In 2004, there was a major breakthrough when researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago found a gene that was linked to alcohol dependency. A protein called CREB is known to regulate brain function, and researchers discovered that this gene is also associated with anxiety and alcohol dependency. With 30 to 70 percent of alcoholics suffering from anxiety and depression and self-medicating with alcohol, understanding the role of this gene is an important piece of the puzzle.
Researchers continue to look for genes that may make humans more vulnerable to addiction because by identifying at least some of the genes, we can better understand addiction and how to treat it. However, it’s not just one gene that creates an increased risk for addiction but a combination of genes.
For instance, a person may suffer from anxiety and depression, and then they turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. The experimentation can stimulate the pleasure centers and form dependence quickly. All of these behaviors/feelings are being shaped by the person’s biological makeup. With more research, we may finally be able to answer the question of, “How can person can try marijuana and not get hooked, while the other person becomes an addict?”
Genes are Only Half the Equation
Some people worry that if they are found to have the genetic makeup of an addict, they will automatically be at risk for addiction. But it’s important to remember that susceptibility does mean inevitability, and that even those who come from a family of addicts do not have addiction in their fate. Why? Well, because there are other factors besides biological ones that impact whether or not someone forms an addiction.
The environment plays a large role in a person’s susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction. For instance, some families have a laidback attitude toward drinking alcohol and celebrate every holiday and occasion by getting drunk. The family members may have a bad habit of drinking too much too frequently, but ultimately, they are in control of the habit. For a young, impressionable teenager who is trying to figure out the world around him, seeing this type of environment may make him more likely to experiment with alcohol at a young age. Now, if there are also genes that make the teen more vulnerable to addiction, coupling both biological and environmental factors together put the teen at risk for addiction.
Still Much to be Learned about the Risk Factors for Addiction
Even with all the modern-day, state-of-the-art research that scientists and other experts use to study addiction, there is still no clear cut answer as to what causes addiction. We know that there are certain factors that make a person more vulnerable, but there are always exceptions, which means that just because you come from a family with addiction doesn’t mean addiction is set in stone. There are a variety of factors that have to come together to create the cycle of addiction, and it’s difficult to say what all of these factors are at this time. That’s why parents always warn their children not to experiment with drugs or alcohol because you just don’t know what type of person you are, until it’s too late.
What we can be appreciative at this time is that we know that addiction is a disease and not a sign of weakness or loss of control. Addiction is a very real condition, and just as heart disease runs in family, so does addiction. By giving more credibility to addiction as a disease, we can better identify the genes that are responsible so that modern medicine can manipulate the genes to normal brain function.