How do genes affect addiction?

Is alcoholism or drug addiction in your family history? Here is how your genetics – and a variety of social and environmental factors -can contribute to developing addictive behaviors. Simple explanations here.

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Written jointly with the Editors of Addiction Blog

Genetics and the likelihood of children repeating behaviours

A variety of social factors can contribute toward a person developing an addiction to alcohol or drugs. But a person’s genetics can also play a part. In fact, research suggests that genes account for roughly half the reason people can become addicted to a substance. Further, research has shown there is a hereditary nature to alcoholism in which the predisposition toward developing an addiction is stronger in some than it is in others.

So, how is it possible that some people are more susceptible to addictive behaviors due to genetic make-up? Is it also possible to have this susceptibility and steer clear of addiction? Remember: genetics isn’t everything – environmental factors can help you steer clear of addiction, as well as personal resilience.

Learn more about genes and the nature of addiction in this article. Then, feel free to post your questions in the comments section at the end. We try to respond to all questions personally and promptly, or we’ll refer you to an expert who can help.

Addiction: Genetics and the environment

It is our genetic make-up that informs our decisions, strengths and weaknesses, combined with environmental factors. For example, there are some people who are more susceptible to stress. If, in their environment, they have easier access to substances, the combination of factors can increase the chances of addiction.

In the case of alcohol, it may be your group of friends are more likely to convene in pubs or bars, placing you in a ‘risky situation’ more frequently than others. For others, family influences and modelling behaviors can influence the decision to try smoking, drinking, or using drugs. For (still other) MOST people, it’s a combination of both.

What has seemingly become clear through research is it is a complex interaction between environmental and genetic factors that can lead to a person developing an addiction.

Addiction in the family

If members of your family, e.g. your father or mother, have struggled with an addiction it may be they have passed this on in their genes. In fact, if a child has an addicted parent or relatives, children 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with addiction than their peers. Why is this?

There are a great variety of genes in the human body and these each work differently in moulding a person’s traits, and different combinations have different effects. So it’s possible to have certain genetic code, behavioural genes, causing character traits linked to addiction. For example, researchers have identified specific gene code in alcoholics that wasn’t present in non-alcoholics.

Dr Neil Brener, of Priory Hospital North London, says: “The search for the dependency gene has long been awaited and whilst we understand some of the genetics it is clearly complex and many factors come into play to lead to the illness called addiction. As we know addiction takes many forms rather than just being alcohol or drugs therefore the interplay with genetics becomes even more complex.”

What genes, can influence addiction exactly? Certain factors include either:

1. The way the drug is metabolized. The rate of metabolism affects how much and how often someone takes a drug.


2. The way the drug makes a person feel. If a drug induces euphoria, people continue to seek a dopamine rush or similar chemical reaction in the brain. The phenomenon of craving is thought to be genetically passed on. Further, some people need to take more and more drugs to feel good, another genetic influence.

The effect addiction has on a family can be destructive as it creates a chain of events. The construct of the family can be damaged if the traditional heads of mother and father are less-than-reliable due to their struggles with an addiction. This can lead to one or more of the children taking on more responsibilities and, in turn, they begin to neglect their own needs. The children are then at risk of physical and mental health issues and can then become more susceptible to addiction problems.

Children repeating behaviors

There is a great swell of research pointing to an increased likelihood of drinking in those whose family has a history of alcohol dependence problems, as detailed by the NACOA. In some cases, research indicates people with a family history of alcohol problems are twice as likely to develop an alcohol addiction. There are also a series of associated issues this can cause, such as:

  • substance abuse
  • poor physical and mental health
  • a detrimental impact on future opportunities through destructive behaviors

Q: But what about a child’s social surroundings?
A: They play a big role too!

As well as genetics lending toward alcohol dependence having a hereditary nature, there is the added ‘social factor’ of a child witnessing addiction close-up in the home. Disruption to home life, destructive behavior and the unpredictability of alcohol dependent parents can be confusing for a young child. They may go on to blame themselves for it and this may lead to negative long-term effects on their mental health, emotional problems and alcohol or substance issues borne from a desire to cope with their volatile home life.

Contributing factors of alcohol abuse

In the end, the likelihood of alcoholism in children with an addictive family history is influenced by a combination of all factors. Addictive potential can be summarized like this: It’s primarily genetics and then the interplay of environment…that triggers addiction.

It is important to realise the far-reaching effects of addiction, as the entire family unit can be affected by a problem. Research into genetic factors and their involvement in alcohol dependence is ongoing, but it remains clear there is a correlation between genetic code, environment and social factors that contribute to addiction. While genetics may make up 50% of the risk for alcohol and drug dependence…. not all people who use alcohol and drugs will become addicted, dependent or even use them regularly. Ultimately, addiction is influenced by many factors, including:

  • a person’s environment
  • one’s individual response to drugs and alcohol
  • parents
  • expectancies of what drinking or using drugs will do

It is also important to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, particularly if there is a history of alcohol or drug dependence in your family. Because a close relation between children and ONE POSITIVE, TRUSTED adult role model protects best against consequences of adverse risk factors, better parenting practices can also help. To prevent the onset of addiction, we need to be happy, healthy individuals who raise, happy, healthy children.

Addiction genetics questions

Would you like to learn more about addiction genetics? We are open for questions. Simply post them in the designated section at the bottom of the page and we will try to respond personally and promptly to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to your particular question, we will refer you to professionals who can help.

About the author
Priory is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK including mental healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and older people’s care. As the UK’s leading independent provider of addiction treatment services, Priory provides professional, specialist treatment programmes for a wide range of addictive substances and behaviours.
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