Science & Technology

Don’t blame your parents: the biochemistry of addiction

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Addiction. A prevalent problem in today’s society, marred with connotations of Trainspotting and other extreme representations that are portrayed in the media. In reality, addiction can take many forms and degrees of severity – and can dominate the sufferer’s life proportionately.

The social effects of addiction are often flippantly and frivolously discussed in papers, magazines and on daytime television but the theories of the root causation tend to be skirted around.

Forms of addiction at onset

Genetic research is one of the most commonly utilised ways of exploring the biological causes of alcohol addiction – itself one of the most commonly studied addictions. There is copious evidence to support the theory that alcoholism runs in families. In fact, the risk of developing an addiction to alcohol is four times as likely among males with alcoholic fathers than males of non-alcoholic fathers.

Nonetheless, the majority of children of alcoholic parents do not develop an addiction. In fact, approximately 50% of alcoholics do not have any other family members suffering the same issue. So, we can only conclude that genetics is not necessarily the primary factor.

Two Types of Alcohol Addiction

American psychiatrist and geneticist, Cloninger, discusses two types of alcoholism: Milieu-Limited (Type I) and Male-Limited (Type II), in a classic and well referenced study.

Milieu-Limited (Type I) alcoholism is characterised by heavy drinking in response to setbacks and losses. These alcoholics are able to stop drinking for long periods of time and may even fear their alcoholism. Personality traits demonstrated tend to be anxious, shy, pessimistic and sentimental.

Male-Limited (Type II) alcoholism is characterised by heavy drinking before the age of 25 and a close male relation who is also alcoholic. They will drink regardless of life-circumstance and have no guilt or fear over their drinking habits. Their personality traits tend to demonstrate impulsiveness, aggression, optimistic and excitable.


Male-Limited (Type II) alcoholism?

This typifying can be supported by evidence from Linnoila (1997), that shows 20% of sons of Type II alcoholics will become addicts themselves. Conversely, it has been observed that “some adoptees, whose biological parent – mother or father – was alcoholic were influenced by the environmental effect in the adoptive family” (Cloninger, 1981).


Neurotransmitters may play a very important role in addiction. These are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our bodies. Current research points towards the neurotransmitter, dopamine; the one that helps control the brain’s pleasure centre and often dubbed as the ‘Happiness Molecule’. Synthesised dopamine can also be used to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.

Kenneth Blum PhD, a Psychopharmacologist (psychiatrist who specialises in medicine), states that:

“Forty years of research into the causes of alcoholism and other addictions have led to one conclusion:

Irresistible craving is a malfunction of the reward centres of the brain … Genetic research … indicates that the malfunction begins in the gene. The same could occur in cake addiction, prescription drug addiction, painkiller addiction (opioid and non – opioid based medicines)”.


Brain Chemistry

Why is Dopamine so important?

Dopamine (DA) is a natural chemical that is made within the human body that is “derived from a series of minor changes in two dietary amino acids: tyrosine and L – tryptophan” (Understanding Biological Psychiatry) and it is clinically relevant in the following conditions, according to Hedaya, 1996:

  • Mania
  • Schizophrenia
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Substance Abuse

Dopamine is utilised for many higher brain functions including attention, reward and executive functions: focusing, planning, judgement, decision making, and social functioning. Dopamine is located in the frontal lobes of the brain and also in the limbic system.

What do these frontal lobes do?

Primarily, the frontal lobes become active during the processes of self awareness – which includes introspection, and physical and emotional sensation. The role of dopamine within the brain is part of the Brain Reward Cascade (BRC) which is the harmonious functioning of the brain’s neurotransmitters working together in complex ways to ensure the proper levels of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre are maintained.

Pleasurable activities or occurrences, even something as simple as receiving a compliment, result in the release of dopamine, the ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’, in the brain.

Genetics affects the neurological system by triggering a breakdown in the BRC. This goes on to manifest in the person as unease and anxiety. This unsettling feeling leads the person to seek to rectify these unpleasant feelings via substances or behaviour. This is termed Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS) – a common predisposition to addiction.

Nonetheless, genetic factors are not hopeless or incurable:

“Genetics means … chemistry. Chemistry can be adjusted and corrected” (Blum)

Research has found that supplementing the diet with amino acids (the starting products of neurotransmitters), can help with RDS.

More recent research has left scientists at pains to explain that dopamine is not the sole cause of addiction. Biology, psychology and socioeconomic conditions also are influential cofactors (Hibbit, 2016). Although we cannot change our genetic blueprint, we can control environmental factors. But first, we must understand what these are and then we can reduce, or even eradicate, them.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors comprise of everything from subjection to chemicals and medical conditions to stress and the surrounding environment.

What people often don’t realise is that industrial businesses released over £21bn of chemicals directly into air, water and land each year; many of which are known or suspected neurotoxins -substances that are toxic to the brain and nervous system in general.   

Furthermore, of the 70,000 chemicals used commercially, only 10% have been tested for their neurotoxic effects. That leave 63,000 chemical species floating around in our environment that could be toxic to our brains.

Neurotoxins, that we are exposed to daily, work by affecting the normal functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain. It is not often reported, but chemical exposure has been linked to increase in alcohol cravings and a higher risk of relapse. This is due to the toxic overload, which results from chronic chemical exposure over a period of time.

Heavy metal toxicity, particularly mercury, has been strongly associated with addictions. Many will have heard of ‘Mad Hatter’s Disease’ which stems from the hat-maker’s exposure to mercury during the hat-making process which causes them, quite literally, to go mad.


As mad as a hatter.

Studies by Dr Dietrich Klinghardt (Medical Director of the Institute of Neurobiology) have shown that the bioaccumulation of mercury in the body causes damage to nerve cells. He goes onto explain that:

“Once mercury has travelled up the axon, the nerve cell is impaired to detoxify itself and therefore becomes toxic and does, or, it becomes malnourished” (Marohn, 2004).

Mercury can come from the atmosphere, dental amalgam fillings (an oft disputed topic) and from fish sources.

Existing Conditions

Stress, the much touted byproduct of our busy, modern world is perhaps the most obvious, yet under-referenced connection for why people turn to addictive substances, or activities:

“All addiction problems stem from an attempt to tranquillise anxiety” (Gallahan, 1995).

Both chronic stress and substance abuse deteriorate the nutrient stores in the body, which in turn, impairs the neurochemistry of the brain.

A well known example of stress-induced addiction is the use of heroin by soldiers during the Vietnam War. They used the substance as a coping method for the extreme trauma that they had to confront minute by minute. But when back in civilian life, the soldiers continued to use the drug as their biochemistry was now dependent on the substance.

As for how likely you are to be receptive to such stress-induced dependency, it should be noted: a significant feature that the majority are unaware of is that the effect of co-morbid medical issues can increase the risk of developing the addiction, and also increase the severity of its effects.

Such co-morbid medical issues include conditions such as hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), allergies, anxiety and depression that are present before addiction.


“A physical or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, such as a drug or alcohol. In physical addiction, the body adapts to the substance being used and gradually requires increased amounts to reproduce the effects originally produced by smaller doses”

Whatever the causes in a given individual case – stress, environmental, pre-existing factors, brain chemistry or genetics – addiction is a serious matter and worthy of scientific research.


Researching the brain


Callahan, R.J. 1995. The Anxiety – Addiction Connection: Eliminate Your Addictive Urges with Thought Field Therapy. In Indian Wells, pp. 564–1008.

Cloninger, C. Bohman, M. & Sigvardsson, S. 1981. Inheritance of alcohol abuse: Cross-fostering analysis of adopted men. Archives of General Psychiatry, 38(8), pp. 861–868.

Available at:

Hedaya, Robert, J. 1996. Understanding Biological Psychiatry First, New York: W.W. Norton.

Hibbit, L.D. Dopamine the Cause of Digital Addiction? Available at: [Accessed September 7, 2016].

Linnoila, M. 1994. The Psychotherapies of Alcoholism,

Marohn, S. 2004. The Natural Medicine Guide to Addiction. In Charlottesville: Hampton Roads Publishing Company Inc. pp. 46–50.

Robins, L.N. Davis, D.H. and Goodwin, D.W. 1974. Drug use by US Army enlisted men in Vietnam: a follow up on their return homeAmerican Journal of Epidemiology , 99(4), pp.235–249. Available at:

Valenti, M. 2000. In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child…/In_Harms_Way_Toxic_Threats_to_Child_Developmen.pdf  [Accessed September 7, 2016]

Available at: (Accessed: 9 September 2016)

Psych, U. (2016) Alcoholism, its definitions, causes, symptoms and treatments. Available at: (Accessed: 11 September 2016).

Worldometers (no date) Toxic chemicals released by industries. Available at: (Accessed: 11 September 2016).


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