Genetic Risk for Substance Abuse and Addiction: Family and Twin Studies


Evidence from family, adoption and twin studies indicates that genetic variation contributes to the risk for developing addiction to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs and to the comorbidity of addictions with other psychiatric disorders. For instance, it is estimated that 50–60% of the variation in risk for alcoholism is accounted for by genetic factors. Genetic influences are implicated in multiple aspects of substance involvement, including predispositions to drug‐seeking behaviour and development of physiological dependence. These influences likely occur through multiple mechanisms, ranging from cellular processes (e.g. metabolic, pharmacologic) to psychological (e.g. personality traits). Environmental factors are also key – individuals' psychosocial histories may outweigh their genetic predispositions or can combine with genetic factors to magnify or decrease risk for developing addictions.

Key Concepts

  • Substance abuse and addiction run in families.
  • Genetic epidemiology uses family, adoption and twin studies to address whether the familiality of addiction is due to environmental factors, genetic transmission or a combination of both.
  • For both men and women, 50–60% of the risk for developing alcoholism is familial and virtually all of this is due to genetic factors.
  • Experimenting with tobacco is primarily environmentally influenced, but genetic factors influence who develops addiction.
  • Addiction to illicit substances also appears to have a genetic component for males; fewer studies have been conducted in females.
  • The available research is based on samples of European ancestry; genetic and environmental estimates could differ for other populations.

Keywords: genetic epidemiology; drug abuse; twin studies; adoption studies; alcoholism


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Prescott, Carol A, Khoddam, Rubin, and Arpawong, Thalida E(Jan 2016) Genetic Risk for Substance Abuse and Addiction: Family and Twin Studies. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005230.pub2]