Substance Abuse: Nature or Nurture?

Nutrition Health Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Substance Abuse: Nature or Nurture?


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Illicit psychoactive substance use, abuse, and dependence are major public health problems. Several genetic risk factors contribute to dependence on both lawfully prescribed medications and illicit psychoactive substances. However, the interrelationship of these risk factors is unclear. Understanding the differences in risk is essential to aiding clinicians and researchers in developing effective approaches to prevention and treatment of these disorders.

Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., Director of the Psychiatric Genetics Research Program at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School in Richmond, and his team of researchers sought to clarify the structure of genetic and environmental risk factors by scrutinizing the symptoms of dependence on cannabis, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Participants in the study consisted of nearly 5,000 members of male-male and female-female pairs from the Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders.

Dr. Kendler indicated that patterns of genetic and environmental risk factors for psychoactive substance dependence were similar in men and women. Genetic risk for dependence on common psychoactive substances cannot be explained by a single factor. Instead, two genetic factors are needed--one predisposing to illicit drug dependence and the other primarily to licit drug dependence.

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