Last Updated on November 16, 2018 by Dr. Alberto Solà

The question of what causes addiction and how to cure it has lead to a persistent and troubling question: is addiction genetic? Answering this question impacts how we treat addiction for medical reasons, but it is also laden with cultural and emotional baggage—the language of guilt and personal responsibility. Here is the answer to the question, as far as it can be answered.

How Is Addiction a Disease?

Is addiction a disease? This question frequently raises concerns and questions among scientists and addicts alike.

Although some people believe that addiction is not a disease, many globally recognized organizations indicate it is, in fact, a disease. For instance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Medical Association (AMA) are two of the organizations that refer to addiction as a disease or illness. To better understand why this is the case, let’s take a closer look at how an addiction works.

Addiction affects the brain and body and occurs due to behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. It involves compulsive use of one or more substances that can cause severe damage to the brain and body.

An addiction may alter the way a person’s brain and body function. If an addiction goes untreated, an individual may suffer various physical and mental health disorders. Additionally, if an addiction goes unaddressed for an extended period of time, it may cause assorted long-term disabilities or death.

Comparatively, a chronic disease refers to an ongoing health condition that can be controlled but not cured. Much in the same way, an addiction is a continuous problem. With the right treatment, however, an addict can control his or her addiction.

Addiction is commonly considered to be a progressive disease. A person who fails to treat his or her addiction properly risks relapse. If an individual undergoes an intensive addiction treatment and develops an effective aftercare plan, he or she may be able to manage an addiction for years to come.

Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

A person may begin to experiment with drugs recreationally. Yet his or her actions could result in a drug addiction.

Some drugs are more addictive than others, and how quickly a person becomes addicted to a drug often varies based on the individual and the drug that he or she uses. Over time, an individual may require higher doses of a drug to experience the drug’s effects. Furthermore, he or she may find that it is difficult to go even a few hours without a drug. And in some cases, drug withdrawal may cause a person to feel physically ill.

Like a disease, a drug addiction affects a person’s brain and body. Thankfully, treatment options are available to help a person dealing with a drug addiction find long-term relief.

Is Addiction Genetic?

Research indicates there may be a strong correlation between addiction and genetics. Addictions and Recovery notes in one study of identical twin pairs and fraternal (non-identical) twin pairs, researchers found that there was a 50 percent to 60 percent risk of addiction due to genetic factors. Also, the study revealed 50 percent of twin pairs were susceptible to addiction due to poor coping skills such as an inability to deal stress or uncomfortable emotions.

Children of addicts are more prone to develop an addiction, too. Addictions and Recovery points out a study of 231 people who were diagnosed with a drug or alcohol addiction showed individuals who had a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction were eight times more likely than all others to develop an addiction.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Researchers have linked alcohol use disorder to certain genes, according to American Addiction Centers. If an individual’s parent, brother or sister, or another blood relative is dealing with an alcohol addiction, he or she may be more prone to alcohol addiction due in part to genetics.

A person’s genes may predispose him or her to metabolize alcohol in a way that makes the drug’s pleasurable effects more prevalent than the nausea, mood swings, and other physical and mental symptoms that are often associated with alcohol abuse. Therefore, people who have a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder may experience fewer warning signs of alcohol abuse than all others.

People with a family history of alcohol tend to have a smaller amygdala than others, too. This sometimes plays a role in the emotions associated with alcohol cravings.

Moreover, researchers have found some people with a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse have abnormal serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin helps regulate a person’s mood, and it is frequently associated with depression.

Why do some, but not all, people who try drugs become addicted?

Vulnerability to addiction varies from person to person, just like vulnerability to cancer or any other disease. No one factor controls whether a person will become an addict. Overall, the balance between risk factors and protective factors determine your risk; people with more risk factors and fewer protective factors are most likely to experience addiction. Both risk and protective factors can be biological and environmental—and obviously genes are a biological factor that may either be protective or place you at greater risk for addiction.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), other risk factors include lack of parental supervision, aggressive behavior in childhood, experimentation with drugs, poor social skills, poverty, and availability of drugs outside the home (especially at school). NIH cites positive relationships, parental support and monitoring, anti-drug policies at school, academic competence, and community pride as protective factors. Obviously, these are mostly environmental.

There are biological factors that increase your risk of addiction. Of course genes are the primary example of this; experts believe that genetic factors account for around 40 to 60 percent of one’s vulnerability. That 40 to 60 percent includes the ways environmental factors impact how your genes function and are expressed—this area is called epigenetics, and it has to do not only with understanding how diseases work, but on the burgeoning field of personalized medicine.

Age, mental conditions, medical conditions, and developmental stage are also factors. For example, people with many kinds of mental illness and adolescents are at increased risk of drug abuse and addiction compared to others. Early use is another factor that combines environment and biology, since it affects the brain’s development and makes addiction more likely. Finally, how the drugs are administered is a factor in how likely a user is to be addicted; users who experience intense, instant highs such as those achieved after injecting and smoking are more likely to become addicted.

Genes and addiction: a nuanced area

So, we already know that most studies reveal that 40 to 60 percent of the addiction risk is genetically linked. Like other chronic diseases, there is a strong trend of addiction running in families. However, it’s important to realize what it means when experts talk about “addiction genes.” Genes that may be linked to addiction do not mandate or control addiction; rather, they cause biological differences that render people more vulnerable to addiction or related states such as severe symptoms of withdrawal.

Multiple genes which play roles in addiction have been identified already. Scientists have often relief upon animal models, especially mice, to identify these genes. Mice are usually the animals these experts use because they share a similar reward pathway in the brain—and many of the underlying genes for that pathway—with humans. Once researchers identify a gene that is linked to addiction in a non-human species, they next work to find similar DNA sequences in humans.

Thus far, here are a few of the genes scientists believe play a role in addiction:

  • People addicted to cocaine or alcohol are more likely to have the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2.
  • Withdrawal symptoms from hypnotics and sedatives like barbiturates are less severe in mice with increased expression of the Mpdz gene; for this reason, scientists believe more expression of this gene may make it easier to become addicted.
  • Mice without the Htr1b gene, a serotonin receptor, are more attracted to alcohol and cocaine.
  • Mice with low levels of neuropeptide Y and who have a defective Per2 gene due to mutation drink more alcohol.
  • Mice with the Creb gene are more likely to develop an addiction to morphine.

Scientists research on genes and addiction so they can develop improved treatments and learn how to target “problem” genes. They are aiming to restore proper brain function and mitigate against genetic expressions that are making addictions more likely. They are also hoping to help patients understand their risk and act more effectively to minimize it.

How to Treat a Drug or Alcohol Addiction

It may seem virtually impossible to treat a drug or alcohol addiction. Some people use multiple detoxes to overcome an addiction. But despite their best efforts, drug or alcohol relapse may occur.

An ibogaine treatment may prove to be exceedingly valuable to a person dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction. This treatment often helps individuals address their addiction symptoms, alleviate addiction withdrawal, and reduce their desire to use drugs or alcohol.

Ibogaine “resets” the body, regardless of drug. It brings a person back to a pre-addiction state. Following an ibogaine treatment, the majority of patients won’t experience drug or alcohol cravings, too.

Ibogaine treatments can help individuals address addiction to many different types of drugs, including:

  • Heroin: Helps an individual minimize the risk of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
  • Cocaine and Crack: Reduces a person’s physical reliance on cocaine or crack.
  • Adderall: Enables a person to overcome a long-term pattern of Adderall abuse.

Ibogaine for alcohol addiction is also available. It helps a person block his or her alcohol cravings and alleviate depression. Plus, an ibogaine for alcohol treatment may result in visions that allow a person to understand and process past events and trauma that contribute to his or her alcohol addiction.

For those who want to treat a drug or alcohol addiction or know someone who is dealing with an addiction, ibogaine therapy may be ideal. To participate in an ibogaine treatment, a person first needs to meet with medical professionals at a state-of-the-art treatment center. Next, these medical professionals will craft a personalized treatment program based on the patient, his or her physical and mental health, and the addiction. The treatment program will then be put into action. Upon successful completion, a patient will exit a treatment center with a long-term plan in place to reduce the risk of relapse as well.

The bottom line

The question you might be asking yourself after learning about the genetic research into addiction is, naturally, if I inherited genetic risk, am I doomed to be an addict? The absolutely honest and great news is: definitely not. Your genes can increase your risk, but that is all they can do. It’s part of the picture—not even the most critical part for most people.

Your environmental risk factors are far more consequential when it comes to addiction. What does this mean? For starters, it means that whether or not you’ve got genetic risk factors, you should work hard to secure a safe, healthy environment for yourself, however, you can. Having certain genes might feel like you’re destined to be running a gauntlet your whole life, forced to beat the biological odds no matter what. However, if there’s one thing addiction science has shown, it’s that addiction is really far more about the totality of your circumstances.

Genetic information is great to have—why not maximize your chances? But overall, look toward your risk and protective factors, and seek professional help to escape what might feel like fate.