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Drugs & Health Blog

Say What? “Epigenetics”

The NIDA Blog Team

"Say What?" is a periodic series in which we define scientific terms and explain their importance.

Ever heard the question, “Nature or nurture”? It means, “What has more impact on a person’s behavior: their genes or their environment?”

In fact, scientists have discovered it’s the interaction of your genes, experience, and environment that influences your behavior and your health. For example, NIDA scientists have found that a person’s genetic makeup can influence the chances that they’ll experience a drug problem (also called a substance use disorder).

We also know now that both experience and environment can influence which of a person’s genes are “expressed”—meaning, which genes are switched on or off. In other words, you can't change your actual genes, but using drugs (and other choices you make) can influence which of your genes affect your health. These changes in gene expression can also be passed on to your children and grandchildren.

The study of how a person’s behavior—like using nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs—can cause changes in their genes is called epigenetics. "Epi-" means "above" or "in addition to." Environmental exposures, and the choices a person makes, can actually "mark"—or remake—the structure of their DNA, which carries all of the person’s genetic information. As epigenetics research goes on, it will reveal even more about why some people develop a drug problem and others don’t.

So…nature or nurture? Actually, it’s both!

Learn more about how drug use affects families. 

Staying Healthy
Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


i say that if your parents or some body in your DNA line has had drug problems it does not effect you i think i would actually do the opposite

If one of your parents has or had a drug problem, that puts you at greater risk for having a problem as well, although if you are careful, and stay away from drugs entirely, you can greatly reduce this risk. This is why we say drug problems are 50% genetic and 50% environment. How you choose to live your life is a huge factor and can protect you. One day science might be able to identify genes that make drugs more dangerous for some people.

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