Yale Scientists Zero In On Gene Variation In Risk For Opioid Addiction

Feb 26, 2018

Scientists at Yale University think they’ve found one factor in what puts some people at higher risk of opioid addiction. It’s a genetic variation that works on the central nervous system.

Scientists looked at genetic samples from 5,000 different people. Dr. Joel Gelernter, one of the study’s authors, says their work started by looking at the factors that put some African-Americans at higher risk for opioid dependence – like differences in potassium and calcium.

When they looked at European-Americans, however, they found a different story. “The risk for opioid dependence is actually a little bit higher in European ancestry than in African ancestry subjects.”

Some Europeans have a variation in a gene called RGMA – one of many, many tiny variations in our DNA. This variation is already known as one factor in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Gelernter says scientists are just starting to learn about the genetic culprits behind opioid addiction, and RGMA probably isn’t alone.

“It’s just one factor among many. Traits that are frequent among the population – and opioid dependence qualifies – are genetically complex. You’re not gonna find a gene or two genes that influence risk for the trait. You’re gonna find tens or hundreds or thousands.”

Genetics are a powerful factor behind opioid dependence – they account for between 40 to 60 percent of what makes a person vulnerable to addiction, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Gelernter says the next step is to broaden the study. They want to get as many samples as possible. That way, they can find even more connections in our genes, and someday maybe that could lead to better treatment for opioid addiction.