Genetics, Addiction & The Human Genome
A News Summary By Terence T. Gorski
On February 10, 2001 the New York Times reported that there
is the consensus of many researchers that a new understanding addiction and
mental illness that is beginning to emerge from recent advances in human genome
research will revolutionize psychology and psychiatry especially in
the areas of addiction, criminality and antisocial behavior.
Dr. Peter McGuffin is a researcher at the Institute of
Psychiatry, Kings College London, England and co-author of an analysis in the
upcoming edition of the journal Science. He and other experts believe that
finding genes which influence behavior may lead to drugs that treat or prevent
some of the major problems that confront society.
Dr. Eric J. Nestler is the Chairman of the Department of
Psychiatry, University of Texas, Southwest Medical Center in Dallas. He believes the
sequencing of the human genome will improve the ability to identify the genetic
risk factors genes for a whole variety of conditions, from addiction to
criminality to anti-social personality. He
also believes that genetic therapy, based upon the new human genome research,
could be a key advance in treating drug addiction.
Dr. Nestler believes that, at its core, addiction involves
a abnormal biological process that gives certain drugs the ability to change the
brain and cause addiction. Although
Dr. Nestler recognizes the complex of biopsychosocial symptoms related to
addiction, he believes that understanding and developing treatment for the core
biological addiction syndrome is critically important.
Dr. Nestler is convinced that addiction is determined, in part, by genetic factors. He believes that mapping the human genome may enable
researchers to identify genes that predispose some people to quickly become
addicted to alcohol and other mind altering drugs such as cocaine or heroin.
Dr. Nestler believes that about 50 percent of a person's
risk to become addicted is genetic. He
believes that once we find
the genes that create the risk, scientist will be able to identify the people who are
at risk of addiction and target them for more intensive prevention
Finding genes for addiction is unlikely to be the final
answer for the use of illegal drugs. Most researchers, it seems, don't see
genetics as a magic bullet that will create an absolute cure for
addiction. This is because the evidence suggests that genes may be
responsible for only half the
If genetic research could
result in a medication that normalizes
the brain chemistry imbalances involved in relapse it could make the
difference between recovery and relapse.
`When addicted people are recovering, they are struggling to
combat incredibly strong biological factors that create cravings and symptoms
that resemble agitated depression. Having a medication that reduces these
symptoms by blocking the action of addiction-prompting genes could make therapy more
There's also good news for people working with addicted
criminals. Experts now believe there may be genes that help explain
why some people become violent criminals while others, living in the same
conditions, do not.
Some experts already regard criminality as a disease
while others strongly disagree. Mapping the human genome may
help settle that debate and, perhaps, lead to medical treatments that correct
Treating crime with pills, ``is a possibility'' if
researchers can find a genetic basis for some the human impulses that underlie
some crimes, said McGuffin.
Medications that compensate for genetic problems, however,
will probably not lead to to the elimination of all crime. This is because
criminality results from a complex interaction between biological,
psychological, and social factors. Scienttists might be able to find some genetic aspects of criminal behavior and
treat those with medication. But like it or not, crime is ultimately
controlled by a human being who makes choices based upon the rationality of
their thinking and the manageability of their feelings and emotions. The
best medication in the world can't make someone choose to live a better life.
What medication can do, however, is to identify the
biological factors that play a role in problems like poor impulse control, inappropriate
aggression, and difficulty linking here-and-now behavior with future
consequences. All of these problems increase the likelihood of violent or
criminal behaviors. If genes that control these problems could be found and drugs developed to control
their action, the process of recovery could become easier, especially people
suffering from severe physical problems.
This research confirms one of the basis tenants of the
CENAPS Model, that addiction is a biopsychosocial disease and that certain
individuals become addicted because they have abnormal physiological reactions
to alcohol or other drugs. These
reactions are the result of both genetic influences and the effects of prenatal
and early childhood developmental experiences.
Medication designed to normalize brain function can make it
easier for people to respond to psychosocial treatment methods. Medication
can enhance psychological and social therapies, but never entirely replace them.