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Genetic Risk For Opiate Dependence

Some recent studies have taken place to see if there is a connection between genetics and opiate addiction. One study from the journal for Biological Psychiatry shows an analysis of 12,000 genomes in addicts and non-addicts. An unexpected result of this study showed significant risk factors for dependence on opiates in some genes.

In studies that have been performed over the years, research was focused on brain receptors known as neurotransmitters affected by prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone and Vicodin (common opiates). This new groundbreaking research found the most noticeable genetic variations associated with opioid dependency occurred in areas of the genes that encode proteins governing potassium and calcium signaling in the nervous system.

“Potassium and calcium signaling were brought to the fore as the most important systems in terms of contribution to genetic risk in our sample,” said Joel Gelernter, Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and lead author of the study. “Findings like these will help provide insight into new therapeutic and prevention strategies.”

Genome association studies have been performed in the past with drugs. Most commonly studied drugs have been nicotine and cocaine because of their addictive qualities. This is the first study of it's kind related to opiate addiction. It is estimated that nearly 60 percent of addiction risk for the genome trait is inherited. Gelertner stresses that eventually the number of genetic variants involved in addiction may number in the thousands as more and more studies are conducted. His lab has already started it's next study by harvesting genes of opioid dependent subjects. “We hope that study will provide us with more insight into specific risk variants for this trait,” he said.

Studies like these are extremely important for our society. As more and more people fall into the cycle of opiate addiction, doctors, scientists and geneticists will look for ways in which specific genes affect addiction.  Once we understand more about addiction and why certain people become addicted easier, this could lead to breakthroughs in helping to stop addiction. 

The human body and brain are extremely complicated and with the help of genome sequencing we may soon come to understand more about how addiction works.  Learning how opiates affect the body may save the lives of many people. I hope to see more groups of scientists taking the initiative to learn how we may be able to see ahead of time who is susceptible to opiate addiction, and ways to fight it.

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