Gene Mutation, Early Childhood Adversity Can Increase Addiction Risks

By Kelly Burch 08/23/19

A new study found that people with a specific gene mutation and stressful lives were more likely to use drugs or alcohol before they were 15.

scientists looking at gene mutation that can increase addiction risk

People who have a specific gene mutation and who experience adverse experience early in life increase their risk for alcoholism and drug use, according to a study released this week. 

The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that a mutation of the gene COMT, which helps the body manage dopamine, is connected with increased risk for alcoholism and drug use when people with the mutation experience early childhood adversity

The research was conducted at the University of Oklahoma. 

"Early-life adversity doesn't make everyone an alcoholic," study author William R. Lovallo, of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine said in a news release. "But this study showed that people with this genetic mutation are going to have a higher risk for addiction when they had a stressful life growing up.”

A Look at the Gene Mutation

People with the mutation were more affected by stress, which might include events like divorce, abuse or distant parents. People with the mutation and stressful lives were more likely to use drugs or alcohol before they were 15, a major risk factor for future drug use. 

Lovallo explained, “This one random mutation makes a difference in how the COMT gene works fine in one person but not as well in another person. There is no such thing as a gene for addiction, but there are genes that respond to our environment in ways that put us at risk. You have to have the right combination to develop the risk factors.”

Lovallo has been researching addiction and risk factors for more than 20 years. 

"Addiction is a real health problem, and to be making progress toward understanding it is one of the most exciting and worthwhile things I've ever done,” he said. 

Environment & Genetics

Identifying a specific gene that increases the risk factors for addiction is a major triumph, he said. The interplay of genetics and environmental factors can help us better understand addiction and who is most at risk for developing substance use disorders, he said. 

"Many of us know people who drink alcohol moderately and never have any problems. And we know people who drink a little and then go down the path toward alcoholism," Lovallo said. "What's the difference between going down that path and not going down that path? Now we have a better understanding that it's not just exposure to alcohol or drugs that leads to problems; there is a genetic component.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.