Addiction can be measured by epigenetics

bb c fa z
Cocaine (Credit: Lee Morley/Flickr)

The case for the familial inheritance of alcoholism and other addictive diseases is so strong that many children of alcoholics chose never to take a drink for fear of developing the disease. The family history hypothesis has been proven through many genetic studies, some of which Ben Locwin has written about here at the GLP.

Now adding to our genetic understanding of addiction is a growing number of studies showing that drug and alcohol abuse affect epigenetic changes in our brains. So addiction isn’t just a pattern of genes causing risk, but also a pattern of risk that change the way our genes are regulated.

In two new studies, neuroscientists showed that both heavy cocaine and alcohol use change the chemical signatures around specific genes that are protective against addiction. In the alcohol study in particular, once these protective genetic systems were differently regulated, they did never come back online at full strength, and alcoholism developed. “This mechanism may be one possible explanation as to why 10 percent of the population develop alcohol use disorders and this study may be helpful for the development of future medications to treat this devastating disease,” the University of California- San Francisco researchers said.

In the cocaine study, researchers found that repeated, heavy cocaine use changed the shape of DNA in the brain’s reward center. These shape changes make different genes available to expressed in RNA and then into protein. Interestingly the genes most affected by these changes were ones also implicated in schizophrenia and autism.

Even if these findings can’t be used directly to develop drug targets to help stop addiction, they may help develop fairly simple tests that could help identify addiction in its earliest stages, when these irreparable changes are just starting.

And, there are some promising, if early ideas, of using gene therapy to help prevent addiction in people with risky genes. For example, Diana Martinez at Columbia University Medical Center will use gene therapy, in mice, to attempt to increase their D-2 dopamine receptors. People with greater numbers of these receptors are more likely to successfully overcome addition and remain drug free.

Meredith Knight is editor of the human genetics section for Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science and health writer in Austin, Texas. Follow her @meremereknight.

Additional Resources:

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped

Video: We can ‘finally’ grow GMOs—Nigerian farmer explains why developing countries need biotech crops

Nigerian farmer Patience Koku discusses the GMO crop trials she is conducting on her farm, and why growers can "rise ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
breastfeeding bed x facebook x

Infographic: We know breastfeeding helps children. Now we know it helps mothers too

When a woman becomes pregnant, her risk of type 2 diabetes increases for the rest of her life, perhaps because ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend