How Genes Are Unlocking More Information About Addiction

As new scientific discoveries have changed the way we look at the traits we pass onto our children, experts have been looking into how it might affect addiction and alcoholism. With the discovery of new genetic insights, there have been discussions about whether gene editing can eradicate the propensity to turn to using drugs and alcohol.

This new technology called CRISPR allows geneticists to alter or add genes, and it has already been used to modify certain genes in animals. Scientists are optimistic than it could be used to cure certain diseases and problems in humans, as well. Some expect it to become a $10 billion dollar industry as more information is revealed.

One area where experts are starting to use genetic alterations is in addictions. Rather than the removal of certain genes, however, they are being targeted for certain proteins that might be associated with addictive behaviors. This protein is called CREB, and it has been shown in various studies to be involved in cocaine addiction in mice. This has opened the door for conversations about treatments for those dealing with substance abuse.

“The exciting, future potential of this variety of research is that CRISPR could one day be used to alter the genetic interplay of CREB and ‘short-circuit’ the addiction process. While addiction-proofing the brain in this way isn’t a near-term possibility, the theoretical path leading to this and similar outcomes is becoming clearer,” writes David DiSalvo for Forbes.

While this is could be a big step toward changing drug abuse and alcoholism, there is also the worry that this technology could be used in a harmful manner. Much of this stems from the fact that there has been a connection between those with “high-powered” brains and addictive behavior. The trick would be to maintain an individual’s drive for success while managing to alter his or her dependence on substances.

Scientists have been able to identify a gene that might be related to alcoholic tendencies, which they recognized as the Nf1 gene. In mice, testing showed that one withdrawal episode caused mice with an intact Nf1 gene to consume more alcohol when it was offered again. Those without the Nf1 gene were not as interested in the substance. Along with this, scientists also tested to see how GABA released in the brain affects those with Nf1, which has further collaborated with the idea that an intact Nf1 is an indicator of alcohol and cocaine addiction.

While most of these tests have been only completed on mice, they do show that it is likely that humans might also be influenced by the Nf1 gene. This could mean that within the next few decades that human babies could be preprogrammed without these conditions, and that even adults could benefit from gene modification. This has added to the controversy surrounding CRISPR and how gene modification can be used for ill.

However, scientists are not claiming that the removal of Nf1 would be the only solution to addiction. Along with modifications, they would also recommend therapy and rehabilitation. Gene modification could be used as an additional tool to help those with addiction make a recovery.

There is an acknowledgement that some individuals are already predisposed toward certain behaviors, and these tend to include addiction. This can come in many forms, which do not necessarily have to be related to substance. Genes can tell us about 40% of whether or not an individual is likely to experience some kind of addiction in his or her lifetime, according to this Forbes article.

This is a significant sum, but not enough for scientists to rely entirely on gene modification as a cure. Whether someone is likely to turn to addictive behavior is often not just related to his or her genetic makeup, but also to stress or trauma that might have happened early on life. Many experts are hesitant to turn completely to genetic modification as an answer because of this.

However, it is likely that CRISPR will start becoming more of a talking point as more is known about it. More tests need to be completed in order to determine how genetics are related to addiction, and ideally they would be completed on humans rather than just mice.

“For now, researchers were clear that this study doesn’t offer specific treatment options, but it is a significant first step toward both greater understanding of addiction and promising new treatment directions,” continues DiSalvo.

Ideally, gene modification could be used as an additional tool to help those struggling with addiction, or those who do not want to pass this gene down to their offspring. It might be a few decades before this method is used widely, but it is almost guaranteed that with more information, we will be hearing more about CRISPR and the Nf1 gene.

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