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Avoiding Addiction When It’s in Your DNA

BY Miles O'Brien  December 13, 2012 at 11:45 AM EDT

I grew up in a house where the booze flowed freely and I was allowed to openly imbibe through most of my high school years. When I got to college, I did what college students do: drank a lot, sometimes to the point of blackouts and long, unpleasant sessions kneeling before the porcelain god of gag.

 

Watch Miles as he participates in an alcohol study at the University California San Diego.

Eventually, I graduated into the world of a job, a mortgage, a wife, kids and tuitions. This has a way of sobering one up, or at least encouraging moderation, which I embraced. But I often wonder what stopped me from following Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism to “do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

science thursdayI have no doubt there are addictive traits in my DNA. There are plenty of drunks in my family tree. But while the role of genes in addiction is large — researchers now believe they are responsible for about 60 percent of the risk of addiction — there are many genes and counter-genes that come into play.

Genes that makes us less risk averse and more impulsive are likely to be in the DNA of an addict. But those wild hare proclivities might be mitigated, or even cancelled out, by other genes that encourage responsibility and faithfulness.

Throw in the nurture part of the picture, the influence of the outside world, and you realize no one is really hardwired to live a life sodden with booze.

This does underscore an important point for parents. The patterns that are set when our brains are young are harder to undo when we are older than behaviors we establish later in life.

When I became a parent, I also was pretty lenient with my teenage children when it came to the use of alcohol. I reasoned that they would be doing it anyway and it was preferable not to turn booze into a forbidden fruit. Now I wonder if that was the best parental strategy.

My kids seem fine, but I did talk to them after I met UCSD Med School psychiatrist Marc Schuckit and learned about his work trying to link genes and … tonic. I reminded them of their family history, told them about the inebriation test I took in his lab – and mentioned his conclusion that my sensitivity to alcohol was “average.”

I sure hope they don’t have a set of genes that allow them to drink others under the table.

A drug to cure you of drugs?

Dr. Thomas Kosten explains how his team at Baylor University is working on a vaccine that would take the high out of cocaine.

Imagine if you could take a pill to cure your addiction. Paradoxical as that may sound, scientists are looking for pathways that could lead to drugs that will help fight the disease.

Psychiatrist Thomas Kosten at Baylor University has been working on a vaccine that takes the high out of cocaine by stimulating the body’s production of antibodies to the drug. The antibodies attach to the cocaine in the bloodstream trapping it there. So long as the cocaine does not pass into the brain, it is rendered impotent. No high, no reason to smoke or snort.

Some addicts in the study used cocaine after the vaccine had time to take effect and produce the requisite antibodies. The amount of cocaine in their system was about ten times more than anyone had seen in a living human. And they felt nothing. So the vaccine is an effective blocker.

Those of you who are skeptical about this and wonder why people with an addiction simply don’t cowboy up and quit the booze or drugs are forgetting an important point: this is a disease. Would you tell someone with cancer to simply get a grip and quit that?

Video editing by Rebecca Jacobson.