Thursday February 16, 2017

New UBC research suggests stronger connection between addiction and genetics

New research by the University of British Columbia suggests there's a strong link between genes and addictions.

New research by the University of British Columbia suggests there's a strong link between genes and addictions. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Listen 10:40

As Canada's national opioid crisis continues, scientists at the University of British Columbia are trying to figure out why some people may be more susceptible to addiction at a genetic level.

"There have been a number of researchers who have taken patients or people who have drug abuse issues and compared their genes to people who do not have drug abuse issues," says Shernaz Bamji, a professor in the department of cellular and physiological sciences.

"And they have identified a number of mutations in many genes that actually help the brain communicate or cells within the brain communicate with one another. "

Her new research, published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggests a stronger connection between genetics, biology and addiction and may provide more clues on how to treat addiction in the future.

"The study adds to a growing body of work that suggests that addiction ... is not just a matter of being weak-willed, but really is a matter of genetics, biology and circumstances," says Bamji.

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The UBC research involved injecting cocaine into genetically-modified mice to see if differences in their brains made them more susceptible to addictive behaviour than ordinary mice. The results surprised the whole team. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Bamji tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch how this study could help with treating and even preventing addiction.

"[This study] explains to us differences in how we learn and different parts of the brain. And this has got impact down the line ... for humans because that might point to avenues of therapy," Bamji says

"Once we really, fully establish exactly how learning and synaptic plasticity in the area of the brain that's involved in addiction is different from learning in other areas of the brain."

As part of the research Bamji injected cocaine into genetically-modified mice to see if differences in their brains made them more susceptible to addictive behaviour than ordinary mice.

Bamji says the results were the exact opposite of what the team expected.

"Well it was, you know, completely counter-intuitive to what we thought was going to happen," says Bamji explaining that unlike the normal mice, the genetically-modified mice displayed less addictive behaviour — even after multiple doses of cocaine over days. 

According to Bamji, this reaction suggests that addiction may be more connected to genetics and biology than previously thought.

Bamji is excited about the potential practical uses of this research, but says clinical trials involving this research is years away.

"You have to be very cautious when you're only interpreting genetic data. You have to go back and do the experiments that we are doing to validate that these particular genes are indeed involved in whatever disease that you're talking about." 

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.