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Multiple substance use disorders may share inherited genetic signature

A new study suggests that a common genetic signature may increase a person’s risk of developing substance use disorders, regardless of whether the addiction is to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or opioids. The research, led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, eventually could lead to universal therapies to treat multiple substance use disorders and potentially help people diagnosed with more than one.

Published March 22 in the journal Nature Mental Health, the study’s findings are drawn from an analysis of genomic data from more than 1.1 million people of mostly European ancestry and a smaller population of people of African ancestry.

Substance use disorders have increased dramatically in recent years, with rising numbers of overdose deaths and increasing social, emotional and financial costs to families and communities. More than 46 million people over age 12 in the U.S. had at least one substance use disorder in 2021, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The most severe cases of substance use disorder typically involve use of more than one substance. However, most medications target the use of a specific substance, such as tobacco or opioids, rather than treating addiction broadly.

“There is a tremendous need for treatments that target addiction generally, given patterns of the use of multiple substances, lifetime substance use, and severity seen in the clinic,” said lead author Alexander Hatoum, PhD, a research assistant professor of psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. “Our study opens the door to identifying medications that may be leveraged to treat addiction broadly, which may be especially useful for treating more severe forms, including addiction to multiple substances.”

The study — led by Hatoum and co-senior authors Arpana Agrawal, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine; Ryan Bogdan, PhD, an associate professor of psychological & brain sciences at Washington University; Howard J. Edenberg, PhD, of Indiana University School of Medicine; and Joel Gelernter, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine — involved more than 150 researchers from institutions around the world. The research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute on Aging, all part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This study represents a major advance in understanding how genetic factors predispose people to substance use disorders,” Agrawal said. “While we have known for a while that many genetic factors are shared between different substance use disorders, our study identified some of the contributing genes, providing avenues for future biological and therapeutic discoveries for individuals with multiple addictions.”

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