Researcher finds link genetics influence behavior, do not cause addiction

Rachel Ann Lew

The interaction of specific genes can increase a person’s chances of developing alcohol addiction and other psychiatric disorders, according to a University specialist in substance abuse research.

Sean Farris, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, said at a Tuesday lecture that genetics do not cause addictions, but they shape and influence behavior. The genes linked to alcoholism are closely connected to genes that increase the risk of developing anorexia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to Farris.

“There is no one ‘alcohol gene’ that will cause people to become alcoholic (sic),” Farris said. “One gene can’t do all the work on its own. It needs a community of genes.”

Farris said he wanted to understand the role genetics play in addiction after he attended multiple court trials and saw several people struggling with alcohol addiction.

“[Alcoholism] is often overlooked and not considered a medical condition,” Farris said. “It is sometimes seen as being weak-willed, but alcoholics certainly don’t want to be addicted or have that kind of lifestyle.”

Through the Human Genome Project, an international scientific research program that aims to map all the genes of the human genome, researchers can apply data to individual patients in order to discover the underlying causes of diseases, including alcoholism, according to Farris.

“All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup,” Farris said. “Through research of the human genome, we can find the genes that implicate the disease and the genes that are connected to them that, together, help influence the development of the disease.”

Ketan Marballi, a postdoctoral fellow at Waggoner and Farris’ colleague, said the overlap between many psychiatric disorders means that medications for one condition may be useful in treating other conditions.

“Drug repurposing is useful, because you can use existing drugs to cure psychiatric illness of other types,” Marballi said. “You can circumvent designing new drugs because the old drugs have already gone through clinical trials and been approved for human use.”

Noah Kraff, a business graduate student who attended the lecture, said he thought it was interesting to see how genetics are not the only factor in causing alcoholism.

“It’s not just genetics,” Kraff said. “Different factors in your life can help you control the medical condition.”