There’s longstanding evidence that genetic factors can play an important role in the likelihood of individuals becoming addicted to opioids. For some time it’s been unclear which exact genes affect the risk of addiction and previous studies have identified different genetic variants which had an impact on the risks. However, a new study has found that one gene could play an important role when it comes to predicting whether a patient has a high chance of becoming dependent on opioids or other substances.

The study looked at the genomes of approximately 5000 patients in the US who’d used opioids. The researchers used these individuals to examine the differences between those who developed dependence on the drugs compared to those who didn’t. Importantly, it was found that one specific gene, RGMA, was associated with an increased risk of addiction throughout the study. This particular gene has previously been linked to certain psychiatric disorders including autism and schizophrenia.

Rohan Palmer, an assistant professor of psychology at Emory University and the director of its Behavioral Genetics of Addiction Laboratory, who not involved in study, said this study goes “multiple steps beyond a traditional (genome-wide association) study.” He also noted that the connection between the gene and psychiatric disorders, as well as this new association with addiction shows there could be “an underlying dimension which stems from shared disruptions in brain functioning.”

The function of the RGMA gene is to send signals to nerve fibres and experts believe that disruption to these molecules could be causing some individuals to have a predisposition to both psychiatric disorders and substance misuse. Although, despite the evidence suggesting a link between the two, it remains unclear how RGMA and other genes could impact the risk of addiction. Dr. Joel Gelernter, a professor of psychiatry, genetics and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine said “We’re making decent guesses about what we think is going on. New properties of known proteins are discovered all the time. There could be a completely different mechanism.”

When looking at the risk of addiction, it’s also important to consider that various environmental and social factors play an important role. It’s previously been estimated that 40-60% of someone’s “vulnerability to addiction” can be put down to genetic factors. The impact of environment and specific genes are strongly interlinked, and these figures show that both aspects can greatly affect an individuals risk of becoming addicted to both opioids and other harmful substances.

“The relative import of any one of those (genetic or environmental factors) is going to vary from person to person,” Palmer said. “Genetics aren’t the end-all.” The majority of experts agree that further research is needed into the biological influences that play a part in addiction. This can help to predict those who are at a higher risk of addiction and mental health problems, and it’s hoped that in the future, this information can be used to provide better treatment and support to those affected.

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