We know genetics can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a number of other conditions, and the same goes for opioid addiction.
Over the last decade, a growing body of research has focused on minute differences in a person’s DNA, called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which can indicate your risk of addiction.
Some people have an opioid receptor gene that protects them specifically from opioid dependence, and substance dependence in general. There are also gene variations for three dopamine receptors in the brain–the molecules that signal pleasure–that are linked to a heightened risk of opioid addiction.
The Impact of Epigenetics in Addiction Development
Genes can also mutate in response to environmental factors, a process known as epigenetics, and these factors don’t have to be experienced firsthand. Your parents’ or grandparents’ experiences can affect the way your genes are expressed generations later. However, even if these genes are present, a person’s genetic propensity for addiction may never develop unless certain environmental factors are present.
For example, in one study, researchers administered opioids to a group of female rats for 10 days during adolescence. The rats remained substance-free until adulthood. The offspring of the rats that received opioids were less susceptible to opioid addiction. They weren’t as willing to seek out opioids, and found them less rewarding. Their brains–and their offsprings’ brains–expressed genes differently as a result of epigenetic changes.
Of course, the epigenetic process on a human scale is a bit more complicated, but findings in rodent models prove promising, nonetheless. While there is still much research to be done surrounding epigenetics, opioid addiction and substance use in general, researchers have already observed epigenetic changes in diseases like obesity.
Using Epigenetic Research to Inform Treatment
Research suggests that people who are born into a culture of drug use may be more likely to get and stay sober. Understanding the science of epigenetics can help inform treatment for people with substance use disorders, helping people remain substance-free and have an improved outlook.
Take cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an example. CBT is a popular type of therapy used in the addiction treatment setting because it focuses on changing a person’s behavioral and thought patterns by improving their problem-solving skills, i.e., reminding a person of the skills they already have that can prevent relapse, and identifying how those skills have helped them thus far.
Epigenetics could also inform new medication development. For example, in the case of nicotine addiction, a doctor will prescribe medication based on an individual’s genes. The same practice could be applied to treating opioid addiction.
However, since researchers have barely scratched the surface on how epigenetics affects opioid addiction, such treatments are years out of reach. Researchers have to determine which genes are responsible for making offspring more resistant, like the rodent model study mentioned above.
Until then, integrated treatment that incorporates evidence-based elements such as CBT is the most effective way to treat opioid addiction. At BRC Recovery, our addiction treatment programs are highly individualized and incorporate a multifaceted array of services that include traditional, evidence-based therapies like CBT, as well as holistic treatments like meditation that focus on healing the whole person. For more information about how our recovery services can help you or someone you love overcome opioid addiction, please contact us at 1-866-905-4550.