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Marc L Feldman, Psy.D., CAADC

Is There An Addiction Gene?

This is a common question that many of my clients ask.  The answer is that currently, there is NO evidence of an addiction gene.  However, many clinicians who work at both inpatient and outpatient facilities will tell clients that this gene does exist.  In fact, I once worked at a facility that showed their clients a video about this non-existent gene.  What the research does show us is that there are genetic vulnerabilities for addiction, so it is not incorrect to consider a family history of substance abuse as a risk factor.  This genetic vulnerability is not as simple as inheriting one gene that predicts whether or not someone becomes an "addict".  One example of a genetic vulnerability is how much stimulation the brain needs to feel pleasure.  Inheriting a brain that is less responsive to natural rewards, such as food or sex, may increase a person's susceptibility to novelty seeking, impulsivity, and risk taking, which are risks factors for substance abuse.  Another genetic vulnerability is how a particular substance is metabolized by the brain; one person may feel intoxicated after drinking two beers, whereas another may require six beers to achieve the same effect.  A third example could be the inheritance of certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety.  Anxiety may make a person more likely to feel rewarded by a substance that reduces anxiety, such a Xanax, than a person who does not have a predisposition for anxiety.  And of course, we must always consider how these genetic vulnerabilities interact with a  person's environment and life experiences.  For example, environmental factors such as trauma or poor relationships with one's family of origin, increase the likelihood of substance abuse problems.  Thus, teaching clients that they have inherited a gene that has made them into an addict is a simplification of a more complex phenomenon, and may cause more harm than good.  
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