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[ Opinion ] [ Science and Tech ]

Why Addiction Is A Genetic Gift

The use of genetic (DNA) testing for purposes related to addiction have been going on for several years now. Some doctors use these tests for their prescribing habits, screening for patients that are more susceptible to substance abuse, like opiate addiction. But It’s not just doctors who are looking into the genetic risk factors that can help evaluate someone’s predisposition to addiction. 

Now, just about anyone with a few hundred dollars can access their genetic data thanks to online genetic testing services like “23andMe” and “Navigenics”, both of which provide insight into certain biological factors that increase someone’s risk of addiction to substances like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and nicotine among others. Similar tests are even being used on embryos to determine the risk factors for potential pregnancies.

A few DNA variations have already been identified that seem to increase the odds a person will become addicted to a specific drug. For instance a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) named rs12284594, has been shown to increase the odds that a causcasion female will become addicted to multiple substances (at some point in their lives) by 1.77 times the normal rate, according to a twin study.

There is no doubt that we live in exciting times, where one can already choose if they want to have a boy with blue eyes, or a girl with a minuscule (.001%) chance of getting autism. It’s not crazy to think that in our lifetime, we may be able to drastically reduce our society’s population of those with substance abuse disorder, at least from a biological standpoint. But as horrible as some addictions can become, one might ask what negative consequences could come from eliminating such a large population of people prone to addiction from birth. 

If you’ve ever been to an AA or NA meeting, you’ve most likely heard the term “grateful alcoholic/addict”. The term refers to those in active recovery who are thankful for their life experiences, including those of their previous active addiction. After all, many of the personality traits that are found more consistently amongst those who struggle with addiction (like risk taking and heightened sensitivity),  are the same traits found in some of the most influential achievers.

In fact, a recent story by neuroscience professor David Linden, PhD suggests that those who struggle with substance abuse disorder also share many of the same characteristics that make a successful CEO or other type of high power achiever. It’s a testament to the fact that the same traits can be the cause of both success and struggle. Maybe even more importantly, it demonstrates the radical potential for those with substance abuse disorder. And why are those shared traits prone to both addiction and success? Well that brings us back to genetics.

You see, from an evolutionary standpoint, today’s population of people prone to substance abuse, thrived during the hunter gatherer era. Optimal survival back then depended on instant gratification: taking the opportunistic capture of a wild animal or instantly picking the fresh fruits during a harvest, these were all traits that favored risk taking and instant gratification. As the agricultural economy came around, so did the need to manage the reward centers in our brain.   

Over these tens of thousands of years, genetic variants have caused a decline in both dopamine and serotonin in certain people. You guessed it, most people with substance abuse disorder fit into this population, and this has caused a substantial change in the way that some of us go about seeking pleasure. Those with lower levels, must seek higher levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that their counterparts can achieve with more moderate indulgence. 

So while the idea of eliminating biological risk factors might seem appealing to some, just remember that these factors may also boost one’s drive to push hard in life and to succeed. After all, what would the world look like if it were not for some of these well known historic figures that openly struggled with an addiction to some kind of mind altering substance at some point in their lives?

Thomas Edison and President William McKinley were both known for their reliability on an elixir called “Vin Mariani,” a medicine which combined wine and compounded coca leaves, the active ingredient in pure cocaine. This would explain why Edison was widely known as an insomniac. 

Sigmund Freud was addicted to morphine until he switched over to cocaine near the beginning of his most influential work. Freud was such an advocate for cocaine, that he published an essay that encourages cocaine replacement as an efficient therapy for those dealing with opiate addiction.

Mathematician Paul Erdős wasn’t just known for his contribution to algorithmic equations, but was also outspoken about his love for amphetamines, which he openly credited with his success.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates may not have struggled with substance abuse disorder, but most certainly shared the same personality traits as those with substance abuse disorder. They both experimented with LSD. Jobs was quoted as saying LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life”. Gates admitted that he too experimented with LSD prior to his success, and has stated his doubts that he would have been successful, had he not stopped using.

These examples are of course just a fraction of those who’ve been able to harness their personality traits which are shared by the substance abuse disorder community. There is no doubt that the same is true for a large portion of the most influential people, historic and current, that have, and will continue, to use their biological traits to boost human civilization. 

It’s widely said that addiction doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t care how smart you are or how much money you make. Certainly, learning more about the disorder and understanding its biological roots can play a crucial role in recovery. 

So would the world be better off by eliminating the genetic pool which leads to the biological component of addiction? It’s a challenging question –  but as for the opinion of this writer in recovery: nature inherently gives everyone a set of gifts and weaknesses for a reason. Most anyone can use these traits for better of for worse, and when it comes down to addictive disorders, the goal should not be to eliminate, but instead embrace these traits and develop the emotional intelligence and practical coping skills to change the world for the better.