Context: Prior research suggests that drug abuse (DA) is strongly influenced by both genetic and familial environmental factors. No large-scale adoption study has previously attempted to verify and integrate these findings.
Objective: To determine how genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk for DA.
Design: Follow-up in 9 public databases (1961-2009) of adopted children and their biological and adoptive relatives.
Participants: The study included 18 115 adopted children born between 1950 and 1993; 78,079 biological parents and siblings; and 51,208 adoptive parents and siblings.
Main outcome measures: Drug abuse recorded in medical, legal, or pharmacy registry records.
Results: Risk for DA was significantly elevated in the adopted offspring of biological parents with DA (odds ratio, 2.09; 95% CI, 1.66-2.62), in biological full and half siblings of adopted children with DA (odds ratio, 1.84; 95% CI, 1.28-2.64; and odds ratio, 1.41; 95% CI, 1.19-1.67, respectively), and in adoptive siblings of adopted children with DA (odds ratio, 1.95; 95% CI, 1.43-2.65). A genetic risk index (including biological parental or sibling history of DA, criminal activity, and psychiatric or alcohol problems) and an environmental risk index (including adoptive parental history of divorce, death, criminal activity, and alcohol problems, as well as an adoptive sibling history of DA and psychiatric or alcohol problems) both strongly predicted the risk for DA. Including both indices along with sex and age at adoption in a predictive model revealed a significant positive interaction between the genetic and environmental risk indices.
Conclusions: Drug abuse is an etiologically complex syndrome strongly influenced by a diverse set of genetic risk factors reflecting a specific liability to DA, by a vulnerability to other externalizing disorders, and by a range of environmental factors reflecting marital instability, as well as psychopathology and criminal behavior in the adoptive home. Adverse environmental effects on DA are more pathogenic in individuals with high levels of genetic risk. These results should be interpreted in the context of limitations of the diagnosis of DA from registries.