The relationship between genes and addiction is complex. Researchers estimate that someone’s risk for becoming addicted to drugs depends both on their genetic makeup and on environmental factors, such as whether their friends abuse drugs.
NIDA researchers are busy studying which genes are linked to increased risk for drug addiction. For example, in 2012, a study looked at a gene that is tied to nicotine addiction and found that people with a “high-risk” variation of this gene had a harder time quitting smoking than people with a “low-risk” variation of the same gene. Generally, people with the high-risk gene took longer to quit smoking and were more likely to be heavy smokers than those with the low-risk version.
If researchers can zero in on the genes that may lead to increased risk of addiction, it might help doctors and other clinicians identify patients who would respond best to particular treatments designed to help them quit. For example, in the same study, people with the high-risk variation of the gene were three times more likely to be able to quit smoking if they used a medication than if they didn’t use one.
NIDA is also working to develop vaccines that would help protect people from addiction and drugs’ other harmful effects.