As we all sit in church, we hear common verses that are used to guide us in the way that we should conduct our lives. We nod our heads and, perhaps, give an occasional “amen.” But unfortunately, as I have witnessed, we give very little thought to why these Scriptures are important. As an apologist, the “why” question is asked of every issue that I run across. Often Christians avoid this fundamental question, perhaps thinking that it conveys a lack of faith. However, what is little known is that Christianity is the only religion in the world that encourages its followers to question it.
In Ephesians 6:4, we find these words: “…bring [your children] up in the admonition of the Lord.” Likewise in Exodus 34:7 we see, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” We see the Scripture, we hear the Scripture, and we learn the Scripture but how much thought do we put into learning what it actually means?
These simple Bible verses bring us to the subject at hand, the link between genetics and addiction, and show us the importance of being self-aware of our shortcomings and the effect they have on our children. As I have studied this subject, these Scriptures suddenly become more clear. Suddenly, as I look at my children, I realize the long difficult road that we must travel in order to keep them away from addiction. Not just because of the other kids in school or even the culture, but because it is in their genes, and already exists in their mind, dormant and waiting to surface.
Addiction, according to Dr. Glen Hanson, Ph.D., is a disorder of pathological decision making and an expression of compulsive destructive behavior despite extreme negative consequences (Glen Hanson, 2011). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over $600 billion dollars is spent annually on drug abuse (NIDA, 2015). Obviously, we can take from this, that not only is there a drug problem in this country, but also an overwhelming amount of addicts who desire to rid themselves of this issue but can’t on their own.
In my case, I have a genetic predisposition of addiction. My father was an alcoholic and a drug addict and so was his grandfather. Also, I know that once I start, I can’t stop. It’s almost like I am no longer in control of my mind and my desires. Why is this? Is addiction purely genetic? We also see that those who have no addiction in their lineage also, at some point, can become addicts.
According to Dr. Glen Hanson in his lecture at Northwestern University’s Center for Genetic Medicine, addiction is a genetic vulnerability, not inevitably. It takes genetics plus environment to create addicts. What’s more, is that no one can be born an addict (only exception is a crack baby, for instance). In other words, one can be born vulnerable to addiction but only when exposed to drugs in his environment can one potentially become addicted.
Polymorphism is the key factor in the passing of addiction from parent to child. Polymorphism involves one of two or more variants of a particular DNA sequence (Francis S. Collins, 2015). In other words, when a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, his DNA is affected. As a result, this variation in the genetic sequence is passed on to the child. Therefore, the potential for addictive behavior is already present in the children of any addict. This does not mean that one is born as an addict, but instead one is more susceptible to addiction than the average person.
But what if someone has no family history of addiction, but becomes an addict throughout their life? This should never happen right? Not right at all.
If a person has no family history of addiction, their genes have not experienced the polymorphism that was mentioned earlier. However, as drugs are used over a long period of time, and in high doses, what we find are gene variants applied to the DNA. Polymorphism is a gene variant that is passed throughout a community or, in this case, from parent to child. But when talking about the change of genes of an individual, it is simply called a gene variant.
Now, there is a big difference between engaging in drug use and continuing drug use. In American culture, virtually everyone experiments with different drugs at some point in their lives. This does not make them drug addicts. Not only that, but I am fundamentally against the idea that addiction is a disease. To call it a disease is to deny the personal responsibility that accompanies it. Instead, I’d like to propose that addiction is, in fact, a mental defect that cannot activate without the contact with drugs and alcohol as a direct result of the persons conscious actions. Therefore, the addict cannot be declared blameless.
You may say that this paper opposes the theory that I just proposed. However, this is where the environmental issue comes in. The defect must be activated by engaging in a drug-filled environment. That is to say, that if you are susceptible to addiction but never come in contact with drugs, then you cannot be considered an addict.
There are three main parts of the brain to look at when discussing this topic. The Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that controls judgment. This is where we get our ability to make good decisions. The Orbital Frontal Cortex gives us the ability to prioritize. And the Amygdala controls impulse. The Amygdala is all about the “here and now.” Now why these are important is because they are all essential in understanding the mental aspects of addiction and how one can change his own genes to include a predisposition to an addictive personality and pass it on to his children.
The Prefrontal Cortex is the last part of the brain that fully develops, becoming so around twenty-six to thirty years old. This is why teens and young adults tend to make bad decisions, because the area of the brain that controls good judgment is not fully grown yet. The Amygdala, on the other hand, develops at a very early age. Therefore, young people, especially teens, have the mental capability to act on impulse without thinking about the long term consequences. This is why teens are so susceptible to casual drug use. The danger, however, is the beginning of long term use of such drugs that can directly result of gene variation in the DNA.
So, as a teen engages in compulsive drug use and continues in this drug use to the point of addiction, as he or she reaches the age of Prefrontal Cortex development it’s then too late. The Prefrontal cortex has been underused throughout their life and, therefore, does not develop the way that it should. Even if it does, addiction has set in and, since the Amygdala has been the basis of their decision making throughout their lives. This is why so many teens reach adulthood as addicts. Perhaps, this is the reason that our rehab facilities are jam packed with thirty-somethings.
So you see, genetics does play a big role in the passing on of addiction. But environment is a huge factor as well. Just because you are not born with the predisposition of becoming an addict, does not mean that you cannot become a compulsive drug user in your life. What’s more, is that if you use drugs consistently, you introduce gene variants to your DNA, which does pass on to your children making them more susceptible to the curse of addictive behavior.
So what does genetics and addiction have to do with the Scriptures that I mentioned earlier? Everything!
The choices that we make on a day to day basis effect the lives of our children and their children after them. As we look at the Scriptures, we see that science backs up what was written 3,500 years ago. And this is not limited to a chemical based addiction such as cocaine or heroin. One can become addicted to anything. You see, it’s not a change in the genes because of the addition of chemicals, but because of the compulsive mindset that accompanies addiction. Gene variants could also be added in the case of addiction of food, sex, or even knowledge and success.
So as we sit in church and listen to the next sermon on sin, let us remember that our sin has consequences. As we see that it is a scientific, that is to say a psychological fact, that the sins of the fathers can be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, it should give us a new perspective on our iniquities. And as we see that we don’t have to be addicts for our children to fall into the trap, we should give serious thought to raise our children up in the admonition of the Lord. Amen!
Francis S. Collins, M. P. (2015, February 14). genome.gov. Retrieved from National Institutes of Health. National Human Genome Research Institute.: http://www.genome.gov/glossary/
Glen Hanson, P. (2011, October 26). Drug Abuse: A Family Matter? – A lecture by Glen Hanson, Ph.D., DDS (Youtube). The Silverstein Lecture series.
NIDA. (2015, February 14). http://www.drugabuse.com. Retrieved from NIH: http://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics