You probably know that your genes help make you who you are. Except for identical twins, everyone has a slightly different set of genes, and when our genes interact with our environment, that’s what makes us unique individuals.
Genes give us different hair, eye, and skin colors, and affect our height and weight. Genes also affect the inside of our bodies, and influence how organs like the heart, lungs, and even the brain work. But did you know that genes also affect how you behave. And the opposite is true as well–how you behave can affect your genes!
Scientists have learned that genes are affected by our lifestyles–what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, how much we sleep. These factors influence how genes are expressed–or turned “on” or “off”–in our bodies. That can have pretty major effects on health.
Currently, scientists are studying how taking cocaine affects your genes. Scientists have known for a while that using cocaine over a drawn-out period can lead to permanent changes in the brain. Teen brains may be especially vulnerable, because they are not yet fully developed. But what causes those changes to happen?
In May 2009, a NIDA-funded study found one piece of the puzzle-and it has to do with, yep, genes. For the first time, scientists have discovered that mice given repeated cocaine exposure “turn on” genes in certain regions of the brain. These genes, called sirtuins [pronounced sir-2-ins], are activated by long-term exposure to cocaine, and it looks like they contribute to the development of addiction.
When the scientists prevented sirtuin activation in the brains of lab mice, the mice didn’t find cocaine to be as good, or rewarding. To say it another way, without turning these genes “on,” cocaine couldn’t give the mice a “high” anymore, and the mice didn’t want the drug as much.
These results are pretty exciting, because if scientists could develop a treatment based on these genes, it might help people suffering from cocaine addiction. That kind of treatment is a long way off–but at least now the scientists know how cocaine affects genes, and how that affects the brain. And that’s a good start.
To find out more about how cocaine affects the body, visit NIDA’s website, or read this basic overview of how genes and drug addiction interact.
On Drug Facts Chat Day, we get thousands of questions about drugs from high school students all over the country. Today, we’re taking one from Casa Grande Union High School in Arizona:
Which drug is most addictive?
Let’s start with this basic truth—although some drugs are stronger or more powerful than others, all drugs are potentially dangerous. Each has a way of tapping into your brain’s pleasure circuitry and altering your physical or emotional state. And this means—Any of them can lead to abuse and addiction.
But what makes one drug more addictive than another has to do with a person’s environment (like stress, or friends who use drugs), the type of drug, and how much it’s used—even genes have a role in whether or not someone becomes addicted. Scientists have already identified a particular gene that makes some people more likely to become addicted to nicotine, the drug found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. All these factors affect the individual person in different ways, which is why everyone’s experience with drug addiction is unique.
Even so, some of the most intoxicating drugs out there will take fewer doses over a shorter period of time for many people to become addicted. This includes cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. And a high dose of a weaker drug taken more often over the same period of time could lead to addiction for some people as well. It’s a hard call to make in advance.
First off, big thanks to teens and adults everywhere who took the time during NIDA’s first-ever National Drug Facts Week to learn new facts about drug abuse.
After a week full of activities around the country, what can teens take away?
At the center of the week was our annual “Chat Day,” which gave high school students around the country a chance to ask NIDA scientists their questions directly…we got more than 5,000! Here’s a sample?
Q: Does genetics play a big role in addiction?
A: That’s a sophisticated question….I sense future scientists. Research suggests that about 50-60% of the risk for drug addiction is due to your genes, and that about 40% is due to environmental influences (like access to drugs, media influences, drug use among friends).Scientists are now starting to identify some of the exact genes that cause this influence. That is giving them clues to how to develop new medications to help addicted people recover.
Of course, no matter what your genes are, you won't get addicted if you just don't take drugs.
Q. Does every teen take drugs?
A. You might think so from watching tv and movies, but you would be wrong. Most teens do NOT take drugs. In 2009, little more than a third of 12th graders reported using an illegal drug in the past year, mainly marijuana. Fewer 10th graders and even fewer 8th graders reported using an illegal drug. It’s a good question you ask, because many teens tend to want to do what other teens do, and if they think everyone else is using, that might influence them to use. That would be making two mistakes.
Q: How can prescription drugs be fatal to us?
A. Pretty much by how they can affect blood flow in your body (like blood vessels getting narrower), or how the brain tells the heart to beat and the lungs to expand and contract. Several medications are ”depressants,” and combined with other drugs, especially alcohol, can shut down that breathing machinery. That’s why these kinds of drugs have warning labels. The key is to only use prescription medications under the care and direction of your doctor. They can be life-saving that way. The problems come when you abuse them or take someone else's prescription.
Q: How does marijuana get you high specifically
A. The exact nature of what ”high” is still up in the air, but here is some of what we know. The active ingredient in marijuana is THC, which causes cellular reactions in the brain that ultimately lead to the high that users get. THC acts on what are called “cannabinoid receptors,” found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thoughts, concentration, time perception, and coordinated movement. This is why some 'weed' smokers experience problems with memory, concentration, and coordination. And some marijuana users, about 9%, get addicted.
Know the Facts, Think before You Act!
Teens and adult sponsors organized events to shatter drug myths from California to Florida to Maine and everywhere in between. At Rockville High School, in Rockville, Maryland, teens produced this public service announcement advertising National Drug Facts Chat Day. http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/schools/rockvillehs/Ramvision/index.html
Other events included the following:
- The Boys and Girls Club’s family advocacy network in Sulphur Springs, Texas, hosted a symposium for parents, caregivers, and youth of all ages, giving them the chance to ask questions about drugs.
- YOUth CARES of El Cajon Valley, California, shared drug facts during morning announcements for middle and high school kids and sponsored a carnival for middle school, high school, and college students. One review called “a great event,” adding that it was “encouraging to see so many teenagers taking action against substance use, and promoting health and fun!”
- NIDA held a CyberShoutout to kick off National Drug Facts Week. All over the country, people blogged, tweeted, and posted to Facebook in support of “shattering the myths” about drug abuse and addiction. Click here to see what people had to say!
This first-ever Drug Facts Week couldn’t have been such a success without your help! But we’ve only just begun: watch this blog for more facts, games, and quizzes to get the drug facts.
That was my question. Why do people do the things they do. I used to just love to sit and watch people. I could sit at the park or in the mall for hours and just “people watch.” I think that's why when I got to college I eventually became a psychology major. I wanted to understand more about why people behave in certain ways and what makes people choose to do different things.
One thing fascinated me in particular was why do some people smoke? My parents smoked when I was growing up. I remember my dad decided to quit and he seemed to do it so easily but when my mom tried, it was so hard for her. She seemed to try everything to quit, and then her mood would get so bad that soon she was buying another pack. Eventually though she did quit...I don't know what finally did it—back then we didn't have the patch or gum and there were no medications. No one talked about smoking being an addiction, it was just a habit, and people thought you only needed willpower to be able to quit. Imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to see my dad being able to quit so easily and her having to struggle so hard.
Smoking affects people very differently. When I was about 18, I had some very cool friends who smoked and so I wanted to smoke too. So I tried it but, lucky for me, I hated it. That was my first lesson in genetics. My second was when I took a class in behavioral genetics, and suddenly all my life experiences started to click, to make sense. My mother struggled to quit because she had a genetic tendency for addiction, not just smoking but also for alcohol, which eventually took her life. I was lucky I had many of my dad’s protective genes so substances of abuse were never tempting to me.
It was these life experiences that drew me to the field of genetics, to better understand why some people struggle so mightily with addiction like my mother. We don't have all the answers even today, but many scientists are working on this puzzle to help find better treatments so people can overcome their addictions and reclaim their lives. Think about becoming a scientist to help solve this puzzle and make life better for so many! It’s a great field and very rewarding, too.
Dr. Miner is the Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications (OSPC) at NIDA. She helps coordinate all of NIDA’s communications to Congress, constituent groups, and the media. She also oversees NIDA’s plans for the research it will support. Cindy earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Colorado in 1986. She’s published numerous papers and book chapters on the genetic and biochemical bases of addiction. Oh—she’s also a wonderful person, an Emmy award winner (as part of NIDA’s work on the HBO special, “Addiction”), and a super athlete! So being a successful “science nerd” is just one of her many talents
* Dr. Miner will soon leave her position at NIDA to start an exciting new job with the Food and Drug Administration’s new Center for Tobacco Products, helping to start up their Communications and Policy offices. SBB wishes her the best!
On NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day 2010, scientists answered a lot of your great questions. This one is from “I AM MIKE” from Jefferson Township High School in Trenton, New Jersey: Are you more likely to do drugs if someone in your family does? The short answer is yes, because the risk of developing drug and alcohol problems is higher in children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs—but it is NOT a guarantee. Research shows that children with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to try alcohol or drugs and develop alcoholism or drug addiction. Why?
- Children whose parents abuse alcohol and drugs are more likely to have behavioral problems, which increases the risk of trying alcohol or drugs. They are also exposed to more opportunities to try these substances.
- Plus, children of parents who abuse drugs may inherit a genetic predisposition (or greater likelihood) for addiction—having an “addictive personality,” so to speak.
Of course, most children of parents who abuse alcohol or drugs do not develop alcoholism or addiction themselves, so your genes do not write your destiny to become addicted to drugs. BUT—to avoid that risk entirely, it’s best not to start, and if you’ve already tried drugs or alcohol, stop now. Help Is Out There When someone has a drug problem, it's not always easy to know what to do. If someone you know is using drugs, encourage him or her to talk to a parent, school guidance counselor, or other trusted adult. Confidential resources are out there, like the Treatment Referral Helpline (1-800-662-HELP) offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which refers callers to particular treatment facilities, support groups, and other local organizations. You can also locate substance abuse treatment centers in your state by going to www.samhsa.gov/treatment.
According to NIDA’s glossary, polyneuropathy is a “permanent change or malfunction of nerves.” “Poly” means “many,” so multiple nerves throughout the body such as in the arms, legs, hands, and feet are affected.
Possible symptoms of polyneuropathy are weakness, the feeling of pins and needles, or burning pain. In the most extreme cases, people can have trouble breathing and experience organ failure.
Many things can cause polyneuropathy, from genetics to a nutritional deficiency. But something else can also cause it—inhaling toxic, poisonous fumes, like those found in certain household products, in order to get high.
Long-term inhalant abuse can break down myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects some nerve fibers. Myelin helps nerve fibers carry their messages quickly and efficiently throughout the body and to the brain. Damaged myelin can lead to muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent difficulty with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking.
Don’t forget about sudden sniffing death, which can occur when inhaled fumes fill up the cells in the lungs with poisonous chemicals, leaving no room for the oxygen needed to breathe. This lack of oxygen can lead to nerve damage, suffocation, and even death.
Sudden sniffing death could occur during a person’s 100th time using inhalants or the first time. There’s no way to predict it.
Learn more about the consequences of abusing inhalants.
“I’m an addict,” Lindsay Lohan told Oprah in a recent interview.
The actress is speaking publicly about her commitment to recovery from drug and alcohol abuse—after 6 visits to rehab, a stint in jail, 2 drunk driving arrests, and 7 car accidents. This time, LiLo insists, she’s going to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Beating addiction isn’t easy. Addiction is a disease that causes people to continually seek and use drugs—even when they know the results are dangerous and drug use can change the brain. In fact, the definition of addiction is that people continue to use drugs despite negative consequences.
Many factors may have led Lindsay to use drugs and get addicted. Her family life wasn’t easy: Her parents divorced, and her father has said he’s an alcoholic and spent time in jail for various crimes. Though it’s not a guarantee, children of parents who are addicted to drugs are more likely to become addicted themselves.
Lindsay has openly admitted that her home life was quite chaotic. She thinks drinking alcohol helped to recreate the chaos of her family as she got older. Oprah asked, “Do you think you are—or were—addicted to chaos?”
“I think so. It was a comfortable chaos for me,” Lindsay replied.
People can’t actually be “addicted” to chaos the way they are addicted to drugs—Oprah’s phrase was a figure of speech. But researchers have found that a chaotic home environment “primes the brain” for addiction. Lots of studies show that a challenging family life mixed with drugs and alcohol makes quitting drugs difficult, and not just for celebrities.
As a young movie star, Lindsay moved to Hollywood on her own. Without a stable family, she felt all the ups and downs that every teen goes through. And, she felt the pressure of living under the spotlight of celebrity.
The good news is, drug abuse treatment can be effective when the person is ready to make a change and has the support of friends and family.
Today, Lindsay says she is on the road to recovery. She acknowledged she didn’t like what drinking did to her. “I’m in a different headspace now,” the actress said.
The actress is not alone. It is common for people to fall back into drug use. Relapse rates for addiction are a lot like relapse rates for other diseases, like asthma or high blood pressure. Relapse doesn’t mean treatment failed. Learning to live without drugs or alcohol takes time and practice.
Do you think Lindsay’s on the right track this time? What advice would you give a friend who is struggling with addiction? Tell us in comments.