Researchers have known for some time that genetics is one of the risk factors for substance abuse. One of the big questions remaining is why are some people at higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse than others?
William R. Lovallo, Ph.D., a researcher at Oklahoma University College of Medicine, published a study (1) that focused on how a person’s genes play a role in addiction. Dr. Lovallo’s research demonstrated that a minuscule genetic mutation can put some people at higher risk for drug or alcohol addiction. The results of his research have been published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the leading journal on the subject worldwide.
Nature, Nurture and Causes of Addiction
Many people wonder whether addiction risk is something that a person is born with (nature) or if it is the result of the family environment (nurture). The risk factors for addiction involve nature and nurture. Dr. Lovallo’s research looked at a particular gene and how it responded to a particular type of environment.
COMT is a gene that helps the body control dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate attention, movement, emotional responses and feeling pleasure. Dopamine is also released when someone drinks alcohol or uses drugs like amphetamines (“uppers”).
Link Between Genes and Childhood Adversity
Dr. Lovallo discovered the relationship between a person’s genes and childhood adversity. People who have the genetic mutation of the COMT gene have a baseline of being more vulnerable to the effects of stress early in life. This type of stress could include divorce, emotionally distant parents, etc. Children who have a heightened vulnerability to stress may turn to drugs or alcohol before their mid-teens, which is one of the most telling independent predictors of addiction.
He explained that experiencing adversity during one’s early life doesn’t always lead to drug addiction or alcoholism. The study does show that people who carry this genetic mutation are at higher risk for developing an addiction if they had a significant level of stress during childhood.
Since COMT helps to determine how well dopamine (2) works in the brain, it helps to explain why some people are at higher risk than others. The gene mutation varies from person to person, affecting how dopamine works for each person differently. It would be oversimplifying matters to say that a specific “addiction gene” has been discovered. However, there are certain genes that respond to the environment in ways that can place some people at higher risk for developing an addiction.