The genetic basis of addictive disorders

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2012 Jun;35(2):495-519. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2012.03.010.


Addictions are common, chronic, and relapsing diseases that develop through a multistep process. The impact of addictions on morbidity and mortality is high worldwide. Twin studies have shown that the heritability of addictions ranges from 0.39 (hallucinogens) to 0.72 (cocaine). Twin studies indicate that genes influence each stage from initiation to addiction, although the genetic determinants may differ. Addictions are by definition the result of gene × environment interaction. These disorders, which are in part volitional, in part inborn, and in part determined by environmental experience, pose the full range of medical, genetic, policy, and moral challenges. Gene discovery is being facilitated by a variety of powerful approaches, but is in its infancy. It is not surprising that the genes discovered so far act in a variety of ways: via altered metabolism of drug (the alcohol and nicotine metabolic gene variants), via altered function of a drug receptor (the nicotinic receptor, which may alter affinity for nicotine but as discussed may also alter circuitry of reward), and via general mechanisms of addiction (genes such as monoamine oxidase A and the serotonin transporter that modulate stress response, emotion, and behavioral control). Addiction medicine today benefits from genetic studies that buttress the case for a neurobiologic origin of addictive behavior, and some general information on familially transmitted propensity that can be used to guide prevention. A few well-validated, specific predictors such as OPRM1, ADH1B, ALDH2, CHRNA5, and CYP26 have been identified and can provide some specific guidance, for example, to understand alcohol-related flushing and upper GI cancer risk (ADH1B and AKLDH2), variation in nicotine metabolism (CYP26), and, potentially, naltrexone treatment response (OPRM1). However, the genetic predictors available are few in number and account for only a small portion of the genetic variance in liability, and have not been integrated into clinical nosology or care.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Alleles
  • Behavior, Addictive / epidemiology
  • Behavior, Addictive / genetics*
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase / genetics
  • Child
  • Comorbidity
  • Endophenotypes
  • Epistasis, Genetic*
  • Ethanol / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Association Studies*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / epidemiology
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Genetic
  • Monoamine Oxidase / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT1B / genetics
  • Risk Factors
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Smoking / genetics
  • Social Environment
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / genetics*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism
  • Twin Studies as Topic
  • Twins / genetics


  • HTR1B protein, human
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT1B
  • SLC6A4 protein, human
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Ethanol
  • ADH1B protein, human
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase
  • ALDH2 protein, human
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Monoamine Oxidase
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase