Study reveals genes make children vulnerable to addiction

January 20, 2015

Research has proven that a variety of factors can influence whether a person develops an addiction. One of the most prevalent factors is environment. This environment becomes all the more important when considering children, researchers from Duke University noted.

Genetics, environment, or both?

There is a well-established controversy on whether addiction is related to the long-standing nature vs. nurture argument. The Duke study authors suggested that it may have a little bit to do with both, according to their findings. They believe that some children may carry a gene that makes them more sensitive to their environment, which in turn could affect how they process and handle situations. They noted that this may not be too significant if they are raised in a positive environment. However, it may have dire effects if children are raised in a negative one.

“Approximately 75 percent of the participants who did not seek help had substance abuse or psychological issues by age 25.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse noted that there are a few different environmental factors that may influence alcohol and substance abuse. The most common factors include exposure to drug or alcohol use, violence or domestic abuse in the home, stress, friends or loved ones who deal with alcohol or substance addiction and the availability of alcohol and drugs.

The study authors used data on fourth graders that was collected over two decades. All of the data came from four different locations in the U.S.: Tennessee, Washington, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The findings indicated that children who came from troubled homes and who carried this gene were more likely to have psychological or substance abuse issues as adults than children who did not carry the gene. The research was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

The scientists wanted to test whether they could influence this gene and make these children’s lives more optimistic. They encourage children to participate in the Fast Track Project. The program was designed for children in the first grade who display signs of aggression. It was initially developed in 1991, and scientists observed close to 10,000 kindergartners. From their observations, they found approximately 900 children with behavioral issues. Using that group, the researchers had half undergo the intervention project. Since the initial study, the researchers have tracked the children’s developments over time.

Finding the right gene

In the most recent findings, the researchers only collected data from white children, and noted they all carried a gene called NR3C1, which is involved in responding to stress. The project was offered to students of all races, and children of other races have benefited as well. Yet the researchers could not find a correlative gene in these children.

“That doesn’t mean such genetic markers don’t exist among children of other races,” said lead researcher Dustin Albert. “We simply don’t know yet what those markers are.”

The results proved that 75 percent of the participants who did not seek out help for these issues had substance abuse, alcohol abuse or psychological issues by age 25. After being a part of this program, only a mere 18 percent of children went on to have disorders as adults.

The researchers stated that not all children are like this. Some may be heartier and survive in any environment, regardless of whether it is good or bad. However, others may be more susceptible to allowing elementary experiences affect them later in life.

This is not the first study that has correlated the Fast Track Project to better child development and a lower likelihood of psychological disorders later on. The researchers are hopeful that their program could be the first of its kind to aid children in troubled homes with a genetic vulnerability. They noted that this project may be able to identify and help children who otherwise would not have the assistance and intervention they clearly need. However, they concluded that much more research is needed before establishing this as an intervention program.

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