Can’t Quit Smoking? Maybe It's Your DNA’s Fault

By May Wilkerson 12/07/15

Some people have a "lucky" gene that allows them to quit and stay away from smoking for good.

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If you're having trouble quitting smoking, it might be because of how your brain is wired.

A new study, that so far is only applicable to Caucasian people, found that those with a particular gene variation in their brain’s reward system were more likely to successfully kick a smoking habit. People with this “lucky” DNA were also more likely to abstain from smoking altogether, according to findings published this week in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Researchers from Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China examined various studies, published between 1994 and 2014, on 11,151 current and former smokers. They focused on one particular gene in the subjects’ brains, known as ANKK1. The gene resides next door to the DRD2 gene, which helps the brain recognize dopamine, the chemical that produces pleasure when you engage in behaviors like eating or sex. Addictive substances, like nicotine, also cause a spike in dopamine levels.

One small piece of the ANKK1 gene is called Taq1A, which seems to have an impact on how DRD2 works. People inherit one of two versions of Taq1A, known as A1 or A2, from each of their parents. So there are three possible genotypes: two A1s, two A2s, or one of each.

The researchers found that, when it comes to quitting smoking, people with type A2/A2 had the most success, compared to those with one or two A1s. Though it was unclear exactly how much better their odds were.

But there’s one caveat. It remains unknown if this “lucky” genetic variation is linked to smoking in people who are not white. According to the researchers, this link between DNA and smoking cessation was only confirmed among Caucasians. People of East Asian descent who were studied were just as likely to quit smoking regardless of their genes. There was not enough data available on black or Latino smokers to know if the lucky gene variation could help them quit smoking or not.

But still, the findings could lead to the development of drugs tailored to help people quit smoking based on their specific genetic makeup. Though smoking rates have declined in the past decade, tobacco smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Across the globe, tobacco use kills nearly six million people a year, according to the World Health Organization.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.