Health & Wellness

December 13, 2012

Avoiding Addiction When It’s in Your DNA


To understand more about the link between addiction and genes, science correspondent Miles O’Brien drinks a mixture of 30 grams of pure ethanol and Diet Coke, the equivalent of three stiff drinks, and undergoes a series of tests.


I grew up in a house where the booze flowed freely and I was allowed to openly imbibe through most of my high school years. When I got to college, I did what college students do: drank a lot, sometimes to the point of blackouts and long, unpleasant sessions kneeling before the porcelain god of gag.

Eventually, I graduated into the world of a job, a mortgage, a wife, kids and tuitions. This has a way of sobering one up, or at least encouraging moderation, which I embraced. But I often wonder what stopped me from following Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism to “do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

I have no doubt there are addictive traits in my DNA. There are plenty of drunks in my family tree. But while the role of genes in addiction is large — researchers now believe they are responsible for about 60 percent of the risk of addiction — there are many genes and counter-genes that come into play.

Genes that makes us less risk averse and more impulsive are likely to be in the DNA of an addict. But those wild hare proclivities might be mitigated, or even cancelled out, by other genes that encourage responsibility and faithfulness.

Throw in the nurture part of the picture, the influence of the outside world, and you realize no one is really hardwired to live a life sodden with booze.

This does underscore an important point for parents. The patterns that are set when our brains are young are harder to undo when we are older than behaviors we establish later in life.

When I became a parent, I also was pretty lenient with my teenage children when it came to the use of alcohol. I reasoned that they would be doing it anyway and it was preferable not to turn booze into a forbidden fruit. Now I wonder if that was the best parental strategy.

My kids seem fine, but I did talk to them after I met UCSD Med School psychiatrist Marc Schuckit and learned about his work trying to link genes and … tonic. I reminded them of their family history, told them about the inebriation test I took in his lab – and mentioned his conclusion that my sensitivity to alcohol was “average.”

I sure hope they don’t have a set of genes that allow them to drink others under the table.

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