Why are some groups hit harder with addiction compared to others? Drug use and drug related crimes are a big problem within African American communities. Data shows that nicotine, alcohol, or any other drugs can put a child at risk of addiction because of their genetic makeup. Recognizing the science in addiction may help reverse the affects substance abuse and relapse susceptibility.
For starters, genes are the functional units of DNA (heredity), passed down from parents which determine the characteristics of their offspring. Although all human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup, the difference lies in that remaining 0.1% (National Institutes of Health). The 0.1% contributes to visible differences like height, hair color, or an increased risk for or protection from certain diseases such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and addiction. This means the way that a parent decides to live their life will genetically affect the way a gene is expressed.
Epigenetics are heritable changes to gene expression. It does not change the actual DNA sequence. Certain circumstances in life can cause genes to be silenced or emphasized over time. In other words, they can be turned off or turned on. Environmental exposures can actually “mark” or remodel the structure of DNA at the cellular level or even at the level of the whole organism (Lieber, Samerotte & Beliveau, 2010). Genetic and lifestyle factors, like what you eat, where you live, who you interact with, sleeping, exercise, or even stress can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. These epigenetic marks can be passed down; affecting the health and and gene expression of children.
When a person uses cocaine, alcohol, or any type of substance, it can mark the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction. A study conducted by Finegersh and Homanics (2014), a father’s alcohol abuse could cause excessive drinking behavior in his son. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is heritable, but the genetic basis for this disease is poorly understood. Their findings show that paternal alcohol exposure may influence alcohol drinking and behavioral sensitivity to alcohol in male, but not female, offspring. Their research also concluded that paternal alcohol exposure encourages epigenetic alterations and gene expression changes that persist in offspring. These results provide new insight into the inheritance and development of alcohol drinking behaviors.
All in all, familial inheritance of alcoholism and other addictive diseases is so strong that many children of alcoholics chose never to take a drink for fear of developing the disease. Whether male or female, your behavior and life choices can effect the next generation. This is important because this can really help people think before they act. Eating right, staying mentally simulated, or making fun and new healthy choices can help your legacy in unimaginable ways. Let’s be mindful of how we live our lives!
This article was written by Sara Ahmed, Communications and Public Affairs Intern.