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01-28 The genetics of alcohol addiction

Posted in Alcohol Addiction

The genetics of alcohol addiction

The “addiction gene” is often misunderstood. Current research proves there is no single addiction gene. Rather, vulnerability to addiction is the result of many interrelated genes and biological differences. These factors can influence how an individual is affected, but do not present a direct cause in themselves.

No one is born an addict. Despite genetic factors, social and environmental factors play a substantial role in developing addiction. As such, alcoholism can be passed down or even skip a generation, but it is not guaranteed.

The genetic component

Current research suggests a 50 to 60 percent risk of developing alcoholism owing to genetics. A family history of alcoholism is likely to render a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Some experts suggest that children of alcoholic parents are three to four times more likely to become alcohol dependent compared to children of nonalcoholic parents.

In fact, studies of adopted identical twins, sharing practically the same genetic make-up, provide greater insight into the genetic component of alcoholism. Identical twins show stronger similarities to one another in their alcohol use patterns, despite having been raised independently in different families, with varying degrees of drinking environments, and in diverse social scenarios.

Below are some of the genetic traits that research indicates may increase one’s risk for developing alcohol dependency:

  • Differences in how alcohol is metabolized by the body
  • Brain response of neurotransmitters to alcohol
  • Pleasure sensors may be more sensitized in some individuals, enhancing their pleasurable response to alcohol
  • The sensitivity to the aroma of alcohol can be influenced genetically
  • Naturally occurring brain chemicals that relieve pain, for instance, can undergo genetic modification
  • Genetic traits may influence the severity of withdrawal symptoms.

The Epigenetics

Epigenetic marks are chemical “tags” that can be put on or taken off DNA. Their purpose is to control the expression of genes. In the form of molecules called methyl groups, these marks can turn genes on or off.

However, the epigenome is ever-changing and highly sensitive to environmental factors such as diet, stress and exposure to toxins, which can alter the arrangement of these tags and cause the ailment. Such environmentally harmful chemicals can leave marks on the genome that can then be passed on through germ cells – sperm and egg – to next generations.

What’s more, these epigenetic changes can predispose the children to not only becoming addicts, but to struggle with behavioral traits like impulsivity and heightened sensitivity to substance of abuse.

Can addiction skip a generation?

Fascinatingly, alcoholism can sometimes appear to skip a generation in families. This could be a result of exposure to constraining alcohol-related behaviors from parents during childhood. Even though they may have inherited the genetic risk for alcoholism, they can choose to avoid usage of alcohol for themselves. They may also work hard to prohibit the use of alcohol by their children. However, if their children also inherited the genetic predisposition for alcoholism and use alcohol, they may develop an addiction quicker than usual.

Sovereign Health of San Diego is a leading behavioral health treatment provider devoted to the well-being of adolescents recovering from addiction and mental illness. We do not just provide evidence-based treatment, but impart life skills to ensure a well-rounded and sustained recovery. If your child is struggling to reach his true potential, call us through our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Sana Ahmed, Sovereign Health Group writer

For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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