Scientists Identify Gene Related to Addiction

Scientists Identify Gene Related to AddictionMany individuals who experiment with drugs or alcohol move on from the experimentation and experience little to no negative consequences associated with use. For others, however, experimentation leads to a behavior pattern that eventually develops into addiction. Understanding why some people develop an addiction and others do not, is the subject of many research studies. 

Researchers have identified many environmental and biological factors that make a person more likely to develop an addiction. Family history, a history of childhood trauma and the habits of close friends and relatives are all major factors determining risk for addiction.

An article appearing in e! Science News discusses a recent study published in the neuroscience journal Neuron. The study, conducted by researchers at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate in Belmont, Mass., contains findings indicating that a gene that plays a critical role in brain development may also be important for addiction-related behaviors. The same gene has been linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Christopher Cowan, Ph.D., director of the Integrated Neurobiology Laboratory at McLean and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that ongoing exposure to drugs can cause changes in the brain. Such changes could be the reason behind the transition that occurs when experimental drug use becomes addiction.

Identifying the specific molecules responsible for the development of a drug addiction, the researchers suggest, could open the door to new treatment options. Cowan’s lab focuses on examining the brain mechanisms associated with addiction, with the goal of providing new information for treatment strategies.

Led by Laura Smith, Ph.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the team used animal models to test the role of various proteins in the brain. The team found that the X mental retardation protein, or FMRP, is important in the advance of addiction behaviors. The researchers discovered that cocaine, for instance, uses FMRP to initiate brain changes associated with addiction behaviors. FMRP is the same protein that is missing in Fragile X Syndrome, a leading cause of intellectual disability and autism.

Cowan’s research centers on the identification of specific genes that contribute to conditions such as autism and addiction. He explains that FMRP works to regulate the strength of connections in a brain that is developing normally.

The researchers hope that by better understanding how FMRP works, they may be able to suggest ideas for treatment options to curb addiction.