Genetics of Substance Abuse and Addiction

Last updated on

How Do Genes Affect Addiction?

Addiction is a complex condition that is influenced by multiple factors, including genetic make-up. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t one single “alcoholism gene” or “drug addiction gene.” Multiple genes play a role in the development of an addiction, and just because someone has a predisposition doesn’t mean that he or she will become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Read on to learn more about genetics and addiction, including:

What Is Addiction?

Looking for Addiction Treatment?

Call 1-888-319-2606

Helpline Information to speak to a representative about drug and alcohol addiction recovery centers.

Addiction is a chronic and debilitating condition characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol abuse that leads to significant impairment or distress in one’s life. 1

Some signs and symptoms of addiction include: 1

  • Using drugs or alcohol in greater amounts or for longer periods of time than intended.
  • Displaying an inability to cut down or quit using.
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time getting and using the substance, as well as recovering from its effects.
  • Experiencing strong urges to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Failing to fulfill home, school, or work responsibilities due to substance abuse.
  • Continuing to abuse the substance despite interpersonal or social problems worsened by or caused by use.
  • Abandoning recreational, occupational, or social activities in favor of substance use.
  • Persistently using drugs or alcohol in dangerous situations, such as while driving a car.
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol or drugs despite mental or physical health issues worsened or caused by use.
  • Developing tolerance: more of the substance is needed to feel desired effects or the user feels less of an effect while continuing to use the same dose.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped or using drugs or drinking alcohol to prevent or stop withdrawal symptoms.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Genes

close-up of girl's face

Genes, which are composed of varying sequences of DNA molecules and are packaged together in our chromosomes, serve as “instruction manuals for a person’s traits. 2 Every human has 46 total chromosomes, 23 from each parent. 2 This is how a person inherits genes from both their mother and father.2


Humans have thousands of genes responsible for their unique traits, or features. 2 It is uncommon for a single gene to fully influence the expression of just one trait. Rather, numerous genes are typically responsible for the expression of individual traits. 3

Types of traits include: 3

  • Physical: observable traits such as height, hair, eye, and skin color.
  • Behavioral or personality: the way someone acts, such as extraverted or introverted. 4
  • Predisposition to a condition: increased vulnerability to diseases or mental illness, including substance addictions.

Genes are not always fate, though. The environment strongly interacts with genetic composition to influence traits.


Every trait possesses different heritability, which is how much individual genes influence a behavior. 5 Heritability can range from 0.0 to 1.0, with 0 indicating a complete lack of genetic influence and 1.0 representing total genetic influence. 5

The development of an addiction is moderately to highly influenced by a person’s genetic make-up. However, drug or alcohol use in adolescence is also dependent upon environmental factors, such as social influence and accessibility of substances. 6 As the person enters adulthood, the environment becomes less influential and genes have more of an impact on the development of an addiction. 6

If you or someone you know has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, call our helpline at 1-888-319-2606 Helpline Information to learn more about addiction treatment options.

Heritability of Different Drug Addictions

Research suggests that, in terms of a predisposition toward developing a specific substance dependence, distinct drug types are associated with different heritability rates. Dependence on or abuse of hallucinogens has the lowest heritability with .39 or 39%, while that of cocaine has the highest with .72 or 72%. 6

Below is the range of genetic influence from lowest to highest: 6

  • Hallucinogens.
  • Stimulants (not including cocaine).
  • Marijuana.
  • Sedatives.
  • Nicotine.

Addiction Genes

Addictions aren’t influenced by one single gene. Susceptibility to substance addiction is complex, and multiple genes contribute to this trait. Two individuals suffering from the same addiction may show great genetic variability. 7

Although much more research is necessary to uncover hereditary factors, studies have found various suspected genes, such as: 7

  • Those addicted to cocaine and alcohol are more likely to have a specific genetic variant (known as the A1 allele) for the gene that codes for expression of the DRD2 dopamine receptor.
  • Mice without the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b are drawn to cocaine and alcohol administration.
  • Mice with decreased levels of neuropeptide Y consume higher amounts of alcohol.
  • Mutation of the Per2 gene in mice leads to a three-fold increase in alcohol consumption. 8

Remember that just because you have one or more of these genes doesn’t mean you’ll become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Environmental factors can protect you from abusing substances and developing an addiction.

Causes of Addiction

Get Help for Addiction

Call 1-888-319-2606

Helpline Information if you or your loved one needs help recovering from an addiction.

Addiction is a multifaceted condition. It is caused by environmental influences as well as genetic factors.

Both risk factors and protective factors are associated with drug dependence. Risk factors increase the chance that someone will develop an addiction, while protective factors decrease the chance.

Common risk factors include: 9, 10

  • Childhood abuse.
  • Aggressive behavior in childhood.
  • Lack of a support system.
  • Poor coping skills.
  • Mental health problems.
  • Availability of the substance.
  • Poverty.
  • Parental substance abuse.
  • Neighborhood violence.

Some protective factors include: 9, 10

  • Strong parent-child relationship or bond.
  • High level of self-control.
  • Education.
  • Healthy coping skills.
  • Parental monitoring and involvement.
  • Academic achievement.
  • Anti-drug policies.
  • Positive self-image.
  • Availability of after-school activities.

Some risk and protective factors remain the same over time. Others may change according to the person’s environment, relationships, education, financial status, and therapeutic interventions. 10

Someone with many risk factors is more likely to experience further risk factors, which is why early and comprehensive intervention is vital in preventing the development of an addiction and additional mental health problems.

How to Prevent Alcoholism or Drug Addiction

Know your family history and learn the signs of addiction.

Just because you have a family history of addiction doesn’t mean that you will develop an addiction yourself.

You can help prevent alcoholism or drug addiction by:

  • Knowing your family history.
  • Abstaining from drinking or doing drugs if it runs in your family.
  • Educating yourself on the signs and symptoms of addiction.
  • Finding healthy ways to relieve stress, such as exercising, meditating, keeping a journal, painting, playing an instrument, or spending time with family and friends.
  • Creating a strong support network of sober friends and family.
  • Learning about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol.
  • Seeking addiction treatment if your use is problematic.

Treatment for Substance Addiction

group counseling session for addiction treatment

If you or someone you know is addicted to drugs or alcohol, various types of treatment programs are available.

  • Inpatient treatment: Residential rehabs, which can be standard, luxury, or executive programs, require that you live at the facility for the duration of your treatment while receiving comprehensive recovery services.
  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient programs provide the freedom to live at home and fulfill home, school, or work responsibilities while receiving addiction services, such as therapy or counseling.
  • Dual diagnosis: A dual diagnosis means a person suffers from an addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder. If you suspect or know that you have a dual diagnosis, seek out a recovery center that is experienced in treating comorbid conditions.
  • Individual therapy: A credentialed therapist will use a number of therapeutic techniques to help you change thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can lead to addiction and help you develop coping skills.
  • Group counseling: A counselor will facilitate a group therapy session centered on the development of interpersonal skills and the use of coping strategies. Groups are usually small and include other people struggling with addiction.
  • 12-step programs: Twelve-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, provide members with encouragement, support, and guidance while working toward achieving and maintaining a sober and healthy life.

Find an Addiction Recovery Center

Call our helpline at 1-888-319-2606 Helpline Information if you are interested in learning more about addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one. A representative is available to speak to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


[1]. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

[2]. University of Utah. (2016). What is Heredity?

[3]. University of Utah. (2016). What is a Trait?

[4]. University of Washington. (2012). Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are.

[5]. University of Colorado. Heritability: Introduction.

[6]. Bevilacqua, L., & Goldman, D. (2009). Genes and Addictions. Clin Pharmacol Ther Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 85(4), 359-361. doi:10.1038/clpt.2009.6

[7]. University of Utah. (2016). Genes and Addiction.

[8]. Newcastle University. (2013). Gene mutation for excessive alcohol drinking found.

[9]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). What are risk factors and protective factors?

[10]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Risk and Protective Factors.


Ready to get help? Insurance covers treatment.

Check My Coverage

We’re available 24/7. Call us now.

1-888-319-2606 Helpline Information

Ready to get help? Get help today.

Helpline Information