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Understanding Addiction Through Genetics

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Understanding Addiction Through Genetics

The identification of genes associated with increased risk for addiction offers tremendous hope for treatment — but no solid help for clinicians or addicts quite yet.

Today, genetics provides little in the way of concrete information for physicians or for pharmaceutical companies, leaving us largely dependent on tried-and-true therapies and preventive strategies.

The lack of a magic bullet does not mean the new genetic associations have not helped clinicians in the field of addiction recovery. To the contrary, the media buzz about these developments has served a crucial role in changing perceptions of organizations that fund research, physicians, family members, and addicts.

Public awareness of the genetic underpinnings of addiction, even if misunderstood, has moved the discussion about addiction from one of moral failings or a disease of choice concept toward a more medical model. By overcoming the view that addictions are purely voluntary, the genetic research has transformed our understanding of the biological basis of addictions and, at the same time, mitigated some of the prejudice against those who have the disorders.

Identification of relevant genes or alleles has advanced the discussion further down the path begun in 1997 by Alan Leshner, who, as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, advocated that addiction was best understood as a chronic, relapsing brain disease. In his model, individuals initially choose to use, but then neurochemical processes in the brain made it harder to stop using, even if they were sober for an extend period.1

Adding the genetic layer to the understanding of addiction helps people to see it increasingly as just another disease. As a result, patients are more likely to seek treatment and family, friends and medical professionals are more likely to refer them for therapy to help them overcome the “compulsive and dyscontrolled use of a drug or activity, with maladaptive and destructive outcomes.”2 The sooner addicts receive treatment, the easier recovery is and the less long-term physical and emotional damage they sustain.

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