For centuries alcoholism and addiction were viewed as personal failings. Many addicts were thought to lack a moral compass and discipline.
Research has proven that addiction is not only a disease, but one that is genetic. Recently, a group of neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge asked “Where exactly does this genetic component lie?” This research was recently published inScience, Feb 2012. Evidence showed that abnormalities in the connections between specific parts of the brain (within the inferior frontal lobe) underlie our ability or inability to control our behavior, the bedrock of addiction. Furthermore, their results provide insight into why siblings sometimes display quite different levels of impulse control and addiction. More importantly, their study offers hope that it is possible to avoid the same fate as your addicted sibling —they’re just not sure how, yet.
The scientists chose to examine the brains from fifty biological sibling pairs. Each pair consisted of someone who was addicted to stimulant drugs (such as methamphetamine or cocaine); the sibling pair was required to have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The information obtained from these siblings was compared to that obtained from fifty healthy and non-addicted volunteers who were unrelated and matched for age and level of intelligence.
The siblings, whether addicted to stimulants or not, both demonstrated personality traits that are highly predictive of vulnerability to long term drug abuse. The major behavioral symptom was having poor inhibitory control, for example it was quite difficult for them to stop doing something risky when instructed to do so. The scientists discovered a high correlation between an inability to control one’s behavior and a deformed structural integrity in brain regions that are critical for this ability.
Why is this finding so important? Because this research clearly demonstrates the important features of our brain anatomy, features that are present at birth, predispose us to drug addiction. In the past, the assumption was that the drug-taking experience altered the brain and all that was necessary was that we avoid the drug, cue the 80’s saying, “Just Say No.” Essentially, this approach is doomed to failure because we inherit our self-control deficits at birth. The imbalance in control that develops between vulnerable brain regions is also thought to predispose people to thrill-seeking and impulsive behaviors such as gambling, sex and shopping. An explanation for why one sibling succumbed to drug dependence while the other did not remains to be determined for later research.