Most of us know something about genetics – how DNA from parents will pass on to their children. That’s why someone with brown eyes is likely to produce children with brown eyes, and someone who is short will likely have short children. Most of us know that the inheritance of genetic traits goes on to affect genetic disorders, diseases like Alzheimer’s, and even a person’s risk of getting diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. But, how do genetics affect more complex disorders such as alcoholism? Can you inherit addiction?
While the short answer is no, you can’t inherit addiction, the long answer is a lot more complex. Your genetics can affect how you react to alcohol and to other substances, as well as your likelihood of addiction.
What are Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of heritable traits which are not expressed in the DNA sequence. Here, inheritable traits are passed on through chromosomes, elements of DNA such as the protein Histone, methylation, and many other factors. These tiny changes create heritable traits without impacting DNA, because they typically happen during development rather than as part of development. Because epigenetic traits are often heritable, you can inherit them from your father or mother, or grandparents.
For example, instances of twins are epigenetic, certain types of cancer are epigenetic, and Prader-Will syndrome are epigenetic. This is important because research is increasingly leading us to believe that susceptibility to addiction may have an epigenetic factor.
Epigenetics and Addiction
The leading research on the subject, headed by Michael Skinner of Washington State University, suggests that if one or both of your parents abuse alcohol before conceiving a child, it leaves an epigenetic marker. This marker is passed down to the child, even if they stopped drinking a considerable time before having children. This field is known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, and has been shown to have effect in instances where parents survived famine, went through stress or trauma, or even were in the military.
In most cases, the impact is that children become more susceptible to addiction by becoming more susceptible to substance use. When epigenetic markers pass on the traits that make addiction possible, like sensitivity to drugs and alcohol, the child is more likely to become an addict if exposed.
For example, Eric Nestler researches these changes using cocaine experiments in rats. He has shown that a cocaine user could have changes to their epigenetic markers for months or even years after they stop using, and that these changes are passed on to children. These modifications are seen for addictive substances including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamine, and opiates.
Alcoholism Influenced by Hundreds of Genes
Other studies show that your inclination to become addicted is linked to hundreds of genes and epigenetic markers. For example, over 930 genes affect how the brain handles alcohol, how it is metabolized in the body, and how it is processed in the body. These interact with how the body handles stress, how the reward system works, and the user’s decision making and impulse control. In one study, it was shown that genetics likely contribute to 40-60% of the factors behind substance abuse and addiction.
What Does This Mean for Children of Addicts?
While epigenetic markers do greatly affect children, they aren’t a guarantee of an addiction. Epigenetic changes make children more susceptible to drugs and alcohol, and therefore more likely to become addicted once exposed. Some also affect decision making and impulsiveness, which can make it more difficult to resist drinking or using in the first place. However, epigenetic markers do not directly cause addiction.
At the same time, a disproportionally high number of children of addicts become addicts themselves. While there is no concrete data on how many, we know that even without considering the genetic impact of alcoholism, children of addicts are much more likely to become addicted themselves.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study was conducted during the 90s, with over 17,000 participants at the Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study tracked adverse and traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, trauma, neglect, physical abuse, household mental illness, parental divorce, and many other adverse experiences and compared them to the prevalence of addiction, mental illness, and physical illness. It has since been followed up by over 50 additional studies, reconfirming the data.
The conclusion was that adverse experiences before the age of 14, including exposure to an adult who is an alcoholic or addict, make children much more susceptible to addiction as adults. The more traumatic experiences, the more likely children are to become addicted to drugs or alcohol as they mature.
Other studies show similar results in that having alcoholics or drug users in the family makes you significantly more likely to go on to use yourself, even when you are not biologically related to the person using. Exposure to early childhood trauma creates changes in the brain, resulting in poorer coping skills, impulsive decision-making, and poor impulse control, all of which are strong factors in addiction.
Genetic Testing for Drug Responses
While not available across the country, genetic testing is increasingly being used in clinics and hospitals. Patients are given a quick mouth swab, which is sent to a genetics lab to determine a possible reaction to opioids or other painkillers based on your genes. For example, if your markers show that you are very prone to drug sensitivity, you may be given a stricter drug schedule, alternatives to opioid painkillers, or another solution. At the least, your doctor will discuss your options with you, enabling you to make a more informed choice before receiving your prescription.
Genetics, or more specifically epigenetics, do have a small role in addiction. They create a predisposition towards susceptibility to drugs and alcohol and a prevalence of behavioral traits that make you more susceptible to addiction. However, they aren’t an end-all. Many people who are born with alcoholic parents and who grow up with adverse childhood experiences never touch drugs or alcohol and never become addicted. Many more become addicted, get help, and move on with their lives to be clean and sober.
Genetics can create a predisposition, but it is your coping skills, stress management, and personal decisions that result in being addicted or not addicted. Susceptibility to alcohol and drug abuse does not mean that you will inevitably become addicted, as Doctor Glen Hanson, director of NIDA’s Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, “you just have to be careful”
More importantly, for those who are already addicted, a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean that help isn’t available. Alcoholism is not genetically inherited, and you can still move past it to become sober using the same treatment methods that work for everyone else. For example, once you start using and become addicted to alcohol, you develop the same epigenetic markers found in the children of addicts.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, there is help. A quality rehabilitation center will offer therapy, counseling, and stress management alongside helping you to detox – which will enable you to build the skills to live a healthy life without alcohol. If family members are currently or were recently using, inpatient care may be the best option to ensure that they are not a negative influence during recovery.
While a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse can make it more difficult for you to avoid alcoholism, you can move past it, get better, and live your life without alcohol.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, or you just have questions, please call Lighthouse Treatment Center today. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. Help is available today.