Say What? “Epigenetics”

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DNA double-helix in blue

"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. 

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