If you or someone you care about are dealing with a substance use disorder, you may be looking back at what event led to this current situation. Addiction is a complex disorder with many variables to consider. Science is still attempting to understand addiction fully and determine why one person can develop an addiction while another does not.
Scientists continue to study the role of genetics as a potential determinant. At this time, no single factor, genetic or otherwise, can fully predict an individual’s future risk for addiction.
What is addiction?
In its overview on The Science of Addiction, Scholastic notes The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s definition of addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain.”
Individuals that suffer from addiction engage in substance use with the purpose of experiencing a desired effect or to self-medicate. The release of the brain chemical dopamine, which is produced in response to the substance, causes a euphoric feeling. The brain is conditioned by this pleasurable effect, which then drives the repetitive, compulsive use of the substance.
But how does addiction develop? What are the risk factors that contribute to an individual’s substance use eventually culminating in addiction? It is believed that multiple influences, including genetics, biology, brain chemistry, mental health status, adverse life events and age of first exposure play a role in substance use disorder.
Can addiction have a genetic component?
In studying the causal factors of addiction, science has confirmed a strong genetic component. Heritability studies on twins have shown that genetics account for a moderate to high influence on the likelihood of developing addiction.
Interestingly, teenage substance use is motivated more by social and environmental factors, with these declining by young and middle adulthood. In adulthood, genetics become the primary driver of substance use disorders.
Some major findings through mice studies demonstrate the role of genetics in substance use disorders. In one study, a protein called PSD-95 was determined to play a role in addiction, in addition to also affecting learning and memory. The mice that had low levels of PSD-95 had difficulty learning their way around a maze while also being more susceptible to cocaine.
Another study looked at a brain protein called DARPP-32, which has been found to be present in the connections between neurotransmitters related to substance abuse. When this protein was removed from the brains of the test mice, they no longer responded to the substances. With every bit of data that we learn from genetics research, the closer we are to reaching breakthroughs that will help predict and better treat substance use disorders.
What other risk factors contribute to addiction?
Some of the other known risk factors that may contribute to a substance use disorder are:
- Environmental factors: Environmental risk factors involve the home environment, like being raised in a home where substance abuse is present, neglect, physical or sexual abuse, or poverty. Friendship circles can also contribute to substance use and addiction.
- Mental health factors: Underlying mental health issues may contribute to developing a substance use disorder. This occurs when the individual attempts to self-medicate to treat illnesses like depression, stress or anxiety through substance use. Over time, the individual becomes more tolerant to the effects of the substance, leading to increased consumption and possibly addiction.
- Early exposure to substances: Studies have shown that the earlier a person begins to experiment with substances, the higher the likelihood that they will develop a substance use disorder in adulthood. One study reported that of participants who began drinking before the age of 14, 47% went on to experience alcohol dependence later.
While risk factors like genetics may be difficult to overcome, it is possible, with the support of a comprehensive treatment program, to live a fulfilling life in recovery.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.