Is Addiction Hereditary?

Generally, society harshly judges people who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. We tend to assume these individuals have a character flaw or personality weakness. Addiction, however, is a very real and complex disease, just as heart disease is. Scientists now know that family history is a strong predictor of who is most at risk for becoming addicted.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug (or alcohol) seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction disrupts normal, healthy functioning of the brain. This disease process is the same regardless of the type of substance a person abuses. Like many other diseases, addictions are preventable and treatable, but left untreated, their damaging effects can last a lifetime.

Genetics account for 40 to 60 percent of a person's vulnerability to addiction. Biology (for example, age, and presence of other diseases) and environmental influences (stress, diet, and peer pressure) also play a significant role. Not surprisingly, adolescents and those with mental health disorders are at greatest risk for substance abuse and addiction.

Drugs and alcohol initially activate pleasure pathways in the brain. With prolonged use, these substances blunt the pathways and no longer produce a pleasurable high. This essentially sets a new normal level of brain functioning, which requires more and more drugs or alcohol just to maintain.

The likelihood that someone who tries drugs or alcohol will become addicted varies. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences reports that 32 percent of those who try tobacco will become dependent. Twenty three percent who try heroin, 17 percent who try cocaine, 15 percent who try alcohol, and nine percent who try marijuana will also become dependent.

While research has established that alcoholism runs in families, scientists have now identified the genetic variations that contribute to the hereditary nature of the disease. Genetic variation describes the differences of sequencing of DNA among individuals that influences whether a person has higher or lower risk for developing a particular disease, such as addiction. In some cases, genetic variation can actually protect a person from the effects of a drug.

Although family history of alcohol abuse predicts who is most likely to develop an addiction, it does not predict who will successfully recover from addiction. Other factors, such as poor impulse control and mild cognitive dysfunction, are actually more important in predicting remission. Interestingly, scientists have found that those who get the sickest from alcohol are also the ones most likely to get better.

Understanding the role of heredity on addiction helps physicians develop new ways to prevent and treat this disease.


Boughton, Barbara. "APA 2009: Family History Linked to Alcoholism but Does Not Predict Remission."  


American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2009 Annual Meeting: Abstract NR2-017. Presented May 18, 2009. Medscape Medical News. Web. 25 May 2009. t;>

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National Institutes on Health. National Institute of Drug Abuse. "NIH Researchers Complete Unprecedented Genetic Study That May Help Identify People Most at Risk for Alcoholism." Press release, August 24, 2006. Web.

National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Drug Abuse. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Genetics & Addiction." Heads Up. Web.

Brody, Jane. "Addiction: A Brain Ailment, Not a Moral Lapse." Behavioral Health Digest 9(4). Web.