When it comes to whether or not drug addiction is hereditary, there have been countless discussions on the topic. Some suggest that chronic use is nothing more than an individual’s lack of willpower. However, science is proving otherwise.
According to the American Psychological Association, an individual’s genetics determines their susceptibility to drug addiction by at least 50 percent. Despite these findings, many still doubt that genetics can inform one’s decision to take drugs. Researchers are becoming increasingly aware that the general public has a degree of distrust when it comes to genetic testing.
In this article, we take a closer look at the science behind genetic testing and how it can be used to help individuals break free of their addictions.
UNDERSTANDING GENETIC TESTING AND DRUG DEPENDENCE
Before addressing how genetics can influence drug addiction treatments, let’s take a look at what is being done to improve its acceptance. Steps will need to be taken to help improve not only the public’s understanding of genetics but also physicians, says Alexandra Shields, Ph.D., director of the Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital Center on Genomics.
Studies have shown that only 4 percent of the country’s primary-care physicians are comfortable relying on genetic testing to outline a course of treatment for their patients. As far as what steps should be taken, Shields admitted that additional research will be needed to identify ways of improving genetic testing acceptance.
WHY PHYSICIANS SHOULD EMBRACE GENETIC TESTING
There have been significant advancements in genetic testing over the last few years. The scientific community is encouraging physicians to take notice, especially since these advancements could lead to improved patient care for those struggling with drugs or alcohol. For example, it’s been determined that a certain dopamine receptor in the brain has the potential to help those addicted to hard drugs. The same also holds true for those addicted to alcohol.
While tobacco is not an illicit drug, genetic testing is also being used to identify why some smokers have trouble quitting while others can quit with ease. According to Caryn Lerman, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, genetics determines one’s dependence on nicotine by as much as 60 percent. The same data indicates that genetics determines one’s desire to starting smoking by as much as 75 percent.
UNDERSTANDING DRUG AND ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE
Despite scientific data showing a nexus between drug/alcohol dependence and genetics, it doesn’t negate the fact that there are environmental factors that contribute to one’s decision to use drugs. If someone is predisposed to chemical dependency as a result of their genetics, adding environmental factors into the mix will likely contribute to their dependency.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 76 million people worldwide are addicted to alcohol.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 185 million people worldwide are taking some variation of illicit drugs. While most will agree that the cravings, anticipation, preoccupation, and the effects of withdrawal can drive one’ desire to continue taking drugs, the debate regarding whether the driving force is tied to hereditary still continues.
The scientific community remains diligent in their research, combing through data to identify how genetic testing can be better utilized to provide custom treatments for those who are alcohol or drug dependent.
It worth pointing out that adaptive changes in gene expression in the brain does occur when someone consumes illicit drugs, and these adaptive changes will often dictate tolerance, habit, and cravings. So while some may argue that drug dependence connotes a mental weakness, there is no denying that the change in brain physiology is also a factor.
It is important that we don’t demonize those who are struggling with drugs or alcohol as it may be hereditary and beyond their ability to control. Instead, we should be supportive and encourage them to seek treatment.