27 April 2016

Could Scientists Have Discovered Genes That Make People Prone to Addiction?

There are many reasons people use chemical substances such as alcohol or drugs, and while not everyone who drinks alcohol or takes drugs will develop an addiction, there are some for whom these substances will become a major issue. Sadly, some people are just predisposed to illnesses such as alcohol or cocaine addiction, for example, and it could just be down to the fact that they have addictive personalities or that they have a family history of addiction.

Many factors make it more likely for a person to develop an addiction, but that does not mean that this individual is guaranteed to suffer from this devastating illness. But imagine if there was a way to identify whether a person was likely to become an addict before they ever abused a particular substance. Well, scientists now believe they may be able to do just that in the future.

New Study

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Alabama, and led by Dr Shelly B. Flagel, has found that it could be possible to identify those who may be vulnerable to drug addiction. The study, which has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, was conducted on rats addicted to cocaine. The scientists believe that they are able to pinpoint the genetic differences in these rats that may make it easier to screen people for potential addiction issues.

Dr Flagel said, “There’s a number of essays that could be created to look at these different molecules to identify if somebody has a history of addiction in their family. If they have certain low versus high levels of one of these molecules, then they can be a candidate for treatment to prevent addiction in the first place. Or, if we know that they’re an addict, to prevent relapse.”

Response to Stimulants

The basis for this new research was a previous study that showed genes for dopamine D2 receptor and fibroblast growth factor responded when cocaine and other stimulants were used. Scientists used rats that were bred as either high or low responders to stimulant drugs. High responder rats resemble human addicts in terms of impulse and temperament.

Using both high and low responder rats allowed the team to look at the differences between them before they became addicted, which gave them an idea of what factors could be involved in predisposition to drug addiction, what is also known as ‘addictive personalities’.

Dr Flagel said, “In human studies, we’re looking at these molecules after we know this person is an addict. That’s one benefit of this study — that we were able to look at essentially genetically similar animals, and say, this is what their brains look like before they’ve been exposed to cocaine, and then this is what they look like after they’ve gone through this prolonged self-administration paradigm and develop or exhibit these addiction-like behaviours.”

Noticeable Differences

The scientists found that the rats that had a predisposition to addiction had high levels of fibroblast growth factor and that these levels stayed higher than normal, even after being exposed to cocaine. Their levels of dopamine D2 receptor were lower than normal initially, but after addiction to cocaine set in, the differences disappeared.

These results are in contrast to research on addiction-prone humans, which show that they typically have low levels of D2. However, Dr Flagel believes the differences in her study and those carried out on human addicts is that the human studies of cocaine addicts tend to be focused on individuals already suffering with addiction.

She believes that this study will help in terms of addiction treatment in the future but knows that more research is required to find out how the different levels of dopamine D2 receptor and fibroblast growth factor can make the rats more prone to cocaine addiction.

Future Treatment

It is well known that not everyone who tries cocaine will end up with a cocaine addiction. Some people are capable of using the drug recreationally without ever becoming dependent on it while others will suffer from crushing addictions that destroy their entire lives.

Hopefully, there will come a day when it is possible to predict whether a person is likely to develop a cocaine addiction or any other type of drug addiction before they ever try it. With constant research, this may become a possibility, and it could change the way addiction is treated in the future.


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