Newly Discovered Genetic Link Proves Why Rehab Must Address Both Mental Health and Addiction

Newly Discovered Genetic Link Proves Why Rehab Must Address Both Mental Health and Addiction

Research into the role genetics plays in addiction is finally catching up to the more frequently investigated association between genetics and mental illness.

We know that mental health issues are present for about 45 percent of people with addiction, according to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.1 And treating both types of disorders concurrently offers the best chance for a lasting recovery.

Now, new research shows why that isn’t surprising. A first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics shows that one’s genetic make-up frequently influences both disorders at the same time. This is known as polygenic risk.

What makes this study different from previous studies is that it analyzed actual genetic code to evaluate individual risk for conditions like autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other studies have relied on reported family history.

The study by scientists at BRAINLab and the Washington University, St. Louis, department of psychiatry looked at 2,573 unrelated adults from the Study of Addiction: Genetics and Environment. The study was part of the Gene Environment Association Studies initiative (GENEVA) funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

After genetic analysis for mental illness risk, they compared that risk to self-reported lifetime usage levels for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, nicotine and opioids.

“Our research shows that if someone is genetically predisposed toward having mental illness, they are also prone to use licit and illicit substances and develop problematic usage patterns,” lead author Caitlin E. Carey said in a Washington University news release.2 “This is important because if a mental illness – like depression, runs in your family, you are presumed at risk of that disorder. But we find that having a genetic predisposition to mental illness also places that person at risk for substance abuse and addiction.”

While people who fall into this category may bemoan bad luck when it comes to their inherited vulnerabilities, studies like this one serve to shatter arcane, unhelpful views that addiction is a moral failing and something to be ashamed of.

“In addition to evaluating the full spectrum of substance use and misuse, from never-using and non-problem use to severe dependence, this study also allowed us to evaluate specific psychiatric disorder-substance relationships,” senior author and BRAINLab director Ryan Bogdan said. “For example, we found that genetic risk for both schizophrenia and depression are associated with cannabis and cocaine involvement. It will now be important to incorporate the influence of environmental factors – such as peer groups, neighborhood and stress – into this research.”

The influence of genetics can be fierce. On the website, which includes more than 1,300 personal recovery success stories, Brandon K. shares his story of being born into a family with substance abuse problems.

“I was born into a family with an alcoholic father and an addict mother,” Brandon writes.3 “Everyone at home smoked, took pills and drank at times. Not only that, I saw it all around me growing up. I was already born with addiction syndrome.”

His mother got sober when he was still young (his father left), and Brandon attended 12-Step meetings with her as a child. But the beast of addiction continued to rear its ugly head.

“Growing up in the rooms of a 12-Step fellowship didn’t prevent me from trying and getting hooked myself,” Brandon shares on “At age 15, I was taking harder drugs. I started to be rebellious, and my mom, who was now sober, had a hard time controlling me and keeping me in line.” An arrest eventually landed him at a treatment center for men in Paducah, Kentucky, and now he has a year of sobriety under his belt.

“I facilitate classes today for others that need help, give morning meditation classes and go to at least one meeting every day,” he writes. “I also enjoy my workout and being around friends. I don’t have any hobbies– right now recovery is my only hobby and I give all my focus and attention to it.”


1. Carey, C. et al. (2016, Aug. 15). Associations between Polygenic Risk for Psychiatric Disorders and Substance Involvement. Frontiers in Genetics. Retrieved Nov. 2, 2016, from
2. Mental illness genetically linked to drug use and misuse, study finds. The Source, Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved Nov. 2, 2016, from
3. Brandon K. (2016, July 19) I Wanted Power. Heroes in Recovery. Retrieved Nov. 2, 2016, from

Written by David Heitz