Addiction and Genetics: What's the connection?

Edmund Murphy
Hailey Shafir
Written by Edmund Murphy on 04 November 2021
Medically reviewed by Hailey Shafir on 28 June 2024

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that involves abnormal reward circuits in the brain which make it much more difficult for a person to control or stop using drugs or alcohol. Like most diseases, addiction is caused by a combination of inherited (or genetic) and environmental (or social) factors. However, recent studies have found that genetic risks can make a person much more likely to develop a drug or alcohol addiction than previously believed.

Key takeaways:
  • Addiction results as an interchange of many factors including socio-economic factors, environment, and age of first use against their genetic predisposition
  • Most studies have proven that over 50% of someone's likelihood to form an addiction is based on their genetic makeup
  • Advances in technologies such as exome sequencing, whole-genome sequencing, and genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified in greater specificity the subtle differences in DNA sequences known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which allows for closer examination of the link between genes and addiction
Addiction and Genetics: What's the connection?

Is addiction hereditary?

Of those who do develop an addiction, it is believed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are at play. Most studies estimate that genetic factors account for roughly 50% of someone's likelihood to form an addiction, which is higher than previously thought. This makes finding the biological source of addiction an important avenue for addiction researchers to understand because it can help to inform prevention and treatment efforts for people who are most at risk for addictive disorders.

Addiction research and genetics

Multiple studies have shown that alcohol and drug abuse, dependence, and addiction runs in families. Researchers have identified numerous genes, chromosomes, and neural circuits in the brain that are believed to increase the risk of addiction. In the brains of those who are genetically predisposed to addiction because of a family history of alcohol or drug use problems, addiction pathways can form more quickly and more easily.


By using new scientific genome mapping and sequencing methods to look at genetic variations, scientists are able to gather stronger evidence from families of those affected with addiction to better understand an individual’s risk of developing an addiction. These findings could provide new treatments and could also provide intervention prevention to those at higher risk for drug and alcohol use disorders. 


For example, targeting kids and teens at higher risk through improved drug education and awareness programs, teaching refusal skills to help them reduce peer pressure, and providing wrap-around supports and prosocial activities could all help to reduce their risk for early experimentation. This would then decrease their risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction later on in life, as early drug and alcohol use is a key risk factor for addiction in adulthood.

Genetic predisposition vs rewiring the brain

Pain and pleasure are primary motivators for human behavior, as well as most species in the animal kingdom. Humans are hardwired to avoid behaviors that cause pain and repeat behaviors that cause pleasure, which is closely linked to the formation of addiction pathways. Many of the pleasure-seeking activities and substances (food, sex, and drugs, and alcohol) are also believed to be addictive in nature, as they activate the dopamine pathways (aka addiction pathways) in the brain. 

This is part of our basic survival instinct and means that addiction, or the potential for it, is hardwired into our brains. The difference is that some people are more vulnerable to developing these pathways because of deficiencies in dopamine or other mood-related chemicals, or because of their genes, personality, or the way their brains are wired. 

However, this does not mean everyone with a genetic predisposition for addiction is destined to develop a drug or alcohol problem. The risk factors for addiction are varied and include things like genes, personality traits, and even brain structure, but also individual choices, early exposure, and environmental factors. Even those who do go on to develop addictions can overcome them, sometimes even without professional help. 

Also, the brain produces pleasure chemicals like dopamine and serotonin naturally in response to healthy behaviors like exercise, socializing, and even engaging in enjoyable activities. Substituting these healthy replacement behaviors is one positive way to help the brain recover from addiction and rewire the old addiction pathways in the brain.

Addictive personality

The interplay between genetic predisposition and the individual is commonly mistaken for the vague term “addictive personality”. In actuality, addictive personalities are far more complex. While some personality traits can make a person more prone to developing an addiction, there is no hard science or evidence that one specific type of personality is linked to addiction. It is also true that preexisting co-occurring disorders such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders increase the likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse. Find out more about addictive personalities by reading our guide. 


While the link between family history, genetics, and addiction is undeniable, it does not mean that there is no hope for those who have a drug or alcohol dependence. Research shows that about 60% of people who develop an addiction eventually stop using drugs and alcohol, proving that for most people, addiction is not an incurable or terminal disease.

Both inpatient and outpatient treatment centers offer varied techniques that are designed to help people from all walks of life and have specific treatment types to help with genetic affiliation with addiction. These will often include cognitive therapies that can help identify the route of addictive tendencies and help to develop methodologies and coping mechanisms for controlling urges and triggers. Contact a treatment center today to start your journey to recovery. 

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  4. White, W. L. (2012). Recovery/Remission Recovery/Remission from Substance Use Disorders from Substance Use Disorders.
  5. Salzer MS, Brusilovskiy E, Townley G. National Estimates of Recovery-Remission From Serious Mental Illness. Psychiatr Serv. 2018 May 1;69(5):523-528. doi: 10.1176/ Epub 2018 Feb 1. PMID: 29385961.

Activity History - Last updated: 28 June 2024, Published date:


Hailey Shafir


Hailey Shafir is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist, and Certified Clinical Supervisor with extensive experience in counseling people with mental health and addictive disorders.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 04 November 2021 and last checked on 28 June 2024

Medically reviewed by
Hailey Shafir


Hailey Shafir


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