Genes Linked to Internet Addiction


We know that addictions of many types have a genetic component – not that genes are destiny, but some of us are more susceptible because of a genetic predisposition. German researchers have now found a genetic link to “Internet addiction,” and the gene implicated is the same one found in nicotine addiction.

We all have genes that regulate nicotinic receptors. But one variant, with the catchy name of the rs1044396 polymorphism on the CHRNA4 gene, is found more frequently in those who have trouble controlling their use of the Internet. A study reported on in the Washington Post compared those who have trouble managing the time they spend online with normal Internet users. Researchers were able to show a statistical link to a variation on the CHRNA4 gene.

The gene, which codes for part of a receptor protein, appears on different chromosomes and is essential for many normal functions, including as a component of nicotinic alpha4beta2 receptors. These receptors have high affinity for nicotine and account for >90% of [3H]-nicotine binding to brain tissues. And that’s the link to tobacco addiction.

Are the two behaviors driven by the same genetic variation? It will take more studies to find out the relationship between tobacco addiction and Internet addiction, but the data seems to show a genetic link.

Interestingly, the effect of this gene variation was more prominent in women, even though men typically have more problems controlling Internet use, at least as far as online gaming and pornography goes. The researchers speculate that the type of addiction seen in women is more commonly connected to social media – things like obsessively updating Facebook or checking email. This difference in behaviors lumped together as “Internet addiction” leads researchers to guess there may be more than one way to get hooked on the web.

Naming addictions by the substance or activity involved is misleading when it conceals the underlying mechanism. This study shows that the same behavior may result from different causes, a situation familiar to addiction specialists. Gene variation is only one part of the story, with depression, obsession and other factors playing into any particular patient’s symptoms. But whenever a biological mechanism is discovered, it gives a clear target to use in diagnosis and treatment, even if it isn’t the whole story.

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