New study discovers shared genetic elements in substance use disorders, promising better treatment options

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – New research from Washington University has uncovered the genetic factors behind addiction, finding that there are common genes that contribute to all substance use disorders, including alcohol, opioids, and tobacco. The study analyzed genomic data from more than one million individuals, identifying 19 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with general addiction risk and 47 for specific substance disorders. The strongest gene signals were located in areas of the genome that are known to control dopamine regulation, which is a chemical that plays a key role in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

“Genetics play a key role in determining health throughout our lives, but they are not destiny. Our hope with genomic studies is to further illuminate factors that may protect or predispose a person to substance use disorders—knowledge that can be used to expand preventative services and empower individuals to make informed decisions about drug use,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D., said in a news release. “A better understanding of genetics also brings us one step closer to developing personalized interventions that are tailored to an individual’s unique biology, environment, and lived experience in order to provide the most benefits.”

The researchers also discovered that the genomic pattern can predict a higher risk of mental and physical illnesses, including psychiatric disorders, suicidal behavior, respiratory disease, heart disease, and chronic pain conditions.

“Substance use disorders and mental disorders often co-occur, and we know that the most effective treatments help people address both issues at the same time,” NIMH Director Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., said.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 46 million people in the United States aged 12 or older struggle with at least one substance use disorder. The study’s authors also pointed out that those who use drugs are facing an increasingly dangerous drug supply, often contaminated with fentanyl. As a result, approximately 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021.

The study’s findings offer hope that a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of addiction will lead to more effective treatments and prevention strategies. By identifying and addressing genetic risk factors, individuals and healthcare providers can take proactive steps to reduce the likelihood of addiction and improve overall health outcomes.