Genetic and Physiological Components of Substance Abuse and Addiction

Genetic and Physiological Components of Substance Abuse and Addiction

Most people know that there is a correlation between substance abuse/use and decreased brain functioning. Substance use affects the way in which the brain processes chemicals and produces responses. The question is, do endocrine imbalances cause a higher prevalence of substance abuse?

If an individual has a hormonal imbalance, can this cause or indicate a possible substance abuse pattern? It is a difficult question to answer. There has been much research conducted in this area, but perhaps the most understood substance is alcohol.

There is a debate over whether alcoholism is genetic. If one’s parents were alcoholics, does it predispose one to alcoholism? There is research that suggests that certain genetic patterns can predispose one to alcoholism. According to researchers at NIDA, there are clusters of genetic variations in certain chromosomal regions that are believed to play a role in alcohol addiction through communication between cells, protein synthesis and development of cells.

Once alcohol addiction has been diagnosed, one can then look at brain functioning. When speaking of substance abuse, one will focus on the frontal structures of the brain. In one study which including neuroimaging the behavioral, emotional and cognitive processes that occur during drug use, the frontal cortical areas of the brain were found to be activated during craving, intoxication and binging episodes. Conversely, upon withdrawal from these substances, these areas were found to be deactivated. These are the same areas of the brain necessary for functions such as inhibition and processing. The researcher indicates that there is a physiological component present in not being able to just say no to drugs. Due to the clouding of the cortical areas, individuals may make decisions that are less than desirable.

So these studies cover what happens in the brain when substances are used, but what about excessive drinking? Are there genes that, if possessed, my make one more likely to drink large amounts of alcohol? One study which took place in 2006 says yes. Studies were conducted with rats with varying predispositions to drinking alcohol. Meaning, some drank more and others less. Different chromosomes were identified depending on what the level of drinking was for that particular rat. Similar chromosomes have been found in humans in regards to drinking. Researchers were able to narrow down the various genes involved in this process to an isolated twenty. Implications for further research are excellent as a behavioral component has been linked to genetic leanings.

What about learning by example?

It makes sense that children raised in families where substances were used by parents would be more likely to do so. Family history of alcohol use leads to an increased chance of alcohol use. The literature shows that children of alcoholic parents are four to eight times as likely to experience alcohol abuse. In particular, males who display lack of behavioral inhibition are more likely to have an alcohol abuse problem.

Inhibitory behaviors include disregarding societal rules and taking risks. In one study behavioral characteristics of one hundred and seventy five male and females, between the ages of 18-30 who were non-alcoholics were included in the analyses. In this group, approximately half had a history of alcoholism in the family and half did not. Lack of inhibition was measured with two different tests.

Researchers examined the cognitive and behavioral characteristics of 175 male and female nonalcoholics from ages 18 to 30. Of these 87 had a family history of alcoholism and 88 did not. Two different tests were used, one to measure the working memory of the individual and the other to measure the amount of inhibition the individual possesses. The results of the study correlate a higher level of inhibition and a deficit in working memory which indicates a predisposition to using alcohol. Those persons with a family history of alcoholism were seeking thrills, which can be termed risk taking behaviors.

What does this mean for the future of treatments?

If the therapeutic community can put together all the different aspects of research that have been collected, this says a lot for future potential substance abusers. If a genetic risk can be identified, coupled with familial predisposition, future risks for substance abuse can be identified thereby eliminating further deficits. Alcoholism is most researched and best known of the substance abuse disorders. However, the fact that research has been found which details physiological components of cortical engagement in other substance use is encouraging. It opens the door to research which could identify an individual’s predisposition to substance use, other that alcohol predisposition. In terms of alcohol use in children of alcoholics, this research could very well be preventative in the same way that identification of the BRAC gene is for breast cancer. Identification of genes which would predispose one to an illness can lead to preventative treatment.


For individuals with a genetic predisposition the popular ‘just say no’ technique probably won’t work. More will be needed to keep these individuals from drug use. For those individuals who have used and are currently going through treatment, learning to identify physiological urges through neuroimaging could help prevent future relapses. This of course, would be in conjunction with proper support from a trained substance abuse professional.

T. Buddy. (2006). Risk Factors: Family History of Alcoholism, Disinhibition: Risks Indicate Probability, Not Certainty.
T., Buddy. (2006). New Genes Found for Excessive Alcohol Drinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
R.Z., Goldstein, N.D., Volkow. (2002). Drug addiction and its underlying neurobiological basis: neuroimagining evidence for the involvement of the frontal cortex. American Journal of Psychiatry 159:1642-1652
NIH Researchers Complete Unprecedented Genetic Study That May Help Identify People Most at Risk for Alcoholism. Accessed 12 February 2009.

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