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Genetic Factors that Increase Risk of Opiate Dependence

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For those struggling to overcome opiate dependence, the question “why me?” can be a constant and overwhelming mental refrain.  Scientific research shows that drug addiction is complex and caused by many factors.  Specifically, genetic factors may be an important contributor to opiate dependence and other forms of addiction.

Overview of Human Genetics

Every cell in our body contains bundles of DNA, the building code of our bodies.  Evidence from the Human Genome Project suggests that our DNA contains 20,000 to 30,000 genes.  Each of these genes can be “read” and translated into a unique protein.  All of us have two copies, or alleles, of each gene.  One comes from our father and one from our mother.  These two copies may have slight differences in the genetic alphabet, causing them to form differences in the structure or function of resulting proteins.  By studying these differences in the genetic code, scientists can determine what genes and proteins may be linked to opiate addiction.

Genetic Factors Associated with Opiate Signalling

One of the best ways to identify genes associated with a particular problem is to perform a genome-wide association study.  By studying a large group of people, scientists can use markers across the human genome to see what genetic factors might be associated with the condition.  In a 2006 study, researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine studied 393 families in which at least one member had a history of opiate dependence.  The researchers found that genes on chromosome 17 were associated with severe symptoms of opiate addiction in both Caucasian and African American individuals.  One of these genetic markers was associated specifically with opiate addiction but not with dependence on alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.  Another marker seemed to be more related to addiction in general, popping up in people who had struggled with abuse of any type of drug.
One set of genes found on chromosome 17 are those that encode opioid receptors.  The brain naturally produces receptors that opioid molecules bind to.  This binding of opioids causes a release of chemicals associated with feelings of pleasure.  Certain people carry alleles that encode forms of the opiate receptors that are more sensitive to opioids.  Thus, the rush or euphoria these people experience is more intense than those with genes encoding less sensitive forms of the opiate receptors.  This provides a potential explanation for why some people are at increased risk for opiate dependence based on their genes.

Some People May Be Genetically Predisposed to Risk Taking Behaviors

In addition to the factors that specifically impact opiate binding and signalling in the brain, there may be genes that increase general risk of addiction to any drug.  In particular, a 2005 review article published in Nature Neuroscience suggests that genes related to impulsivity and risk-taking may underlie many forms of addiction.  These genes change the way that brain chemicals are produced, released, and re-absorbed into cells.  In particular, brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin seem to be strongly associated with impulsivity.
Someone with a genetic predisposition toward impulsivity or risk-taking may be more likely to suffer opiate dependence simply because they have a tendency to try new, potentially dangerous things.  Without a natural “danger signal” in the brain to warn them away from trying opiates, these people may be particularly prone to substance abuse.
Although genetic factors play a big role in who develops opiate dependence, anyone can be treated for addiction regardless of their genes.  Genetics are just one component of the very complex disease of opiate dependence, and the best treatments, such as Waismann rapid opiate detox treatment, focus on addressing all contributors to addiction. We offer our patients a full service accredited hospital where their medical needs throughout opiate detoxification are met, followed by an exclusive post detox retreat where a team of professional assists around the clock through the regulating period. Waismann Method® has been the premier opiate treatment center for almost 20 years.


  • Gelernter J, Panhuysen C, Wilcox M, et al. Genomewide Linkage Scan for Opioid Dependence and Related Traits. American Journal of Human Genetics. 2006;78(5):759-769. Retrieved May 5, 2015
  • Kreek M, Levran O, Reed B, Schlussman S, Zhou Y, Butelman E. Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics.J Clin Invest. 2012;122(10):3387–3393. doi:10.1172/JCI60390. Retrieved May 5, 2015
  • Kreek M, Nielsen D, Butleman E, LaForge K. Genetic influences on impulsivity, risk taking, stress responsivity and vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction. Nature Neuroscience 8, 1450-1457 (2005).Retrieved May 5, 2015

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