Addiction Genetics

Is there a single addiction gene? Did it condemn you at birth to become addicted to drugs or alcohol?

On both counts, science says No. Rather, there are numerous genes believed to play a role in addiction, but none of them possess the sole power to predetermine your addiction to drugs or alcohol. While the genetics of addiction are not fully understood right now, they will prove to be far more complicated than that.

Before we get to that, let’s take a quick look at how the human brain develops an addiction.

Reward Pathways

Normally, the dopamine receptors in our brain’s reward pathways—the parts of the limbic system responsible for emotions and memory—are triggered by our five senses, but when the right drugs enter our brain they don’t bother with the senses; they trigger the reward pathways by convincing them to release a lot of dopamine. This is your “high.”

Allowing this drug into your brain often enough tasks your brain with building more of these dopamine receptors. Meanwhile, other areas of the brain are trying to adjust as well. Over time, your brain will build an entire community around the drug; at this point your brain is diseased, and you start to lose control over your behavior and begin to develop the habits of a drug addict.

Ceasing the drug means robbing that artificial community of its main event. Cravings and withdrawal symptoms set in as your brain seeks to convince you to give it what you’d been giving it for so long.

The Genetic Model

The genetic model of addiction explores this disease by looking for so-called addiction susceptibility genes—genes that, if you have them, may indicate a propensity for certain behaviors.

For example, if you have the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor DRD2, you share this gene with people who are likely to have problems with addiction to alcohol, cocaine, or even compulsive gambling. Another gene might make opioid cravings for you overwhelming, while for someone without the gene, those cravings aren’t so difficult. Another gene has been identified with dependence on barbiturates. Another, on nicotine.

Identification & Treatment

Once an addiction susceptibility gene has been identified, research turns towards how, within the brain’s complex circuitry, this gene influences one’s propensity for drug use, abuse, dependence and withdrawal. Researchers then will hope to create a drug that can turn off, or reverse, the function of that gene with the hopes of alleviating certain symptoms associated with drug addiction.


Scientists and researchers are learning new things every day about the genetics of addiction. It is an exciting field with lots of promise for the millions of people who suffer from drug addiction.

But keep in mind that our genes are not solely responsible for drug abuse and addiction; in fact, a variety of other environmental factors are involved. Like there is no single ‘addiction gene’, genetics will not be offering a single ‘addiction cure’. Overcoming the disease of addiction requires an aggressive approach featuring counseling and therapy, proper nutrition, and a host of other important factors. There will never be an easy cure to such a complex disease, but the process of rebuilding ourselves into healthy, happy people will always be a worthwhile pursuit.

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