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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 intervention.'

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 problem.  

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 effective.

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 criminal behavior.

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.


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