Researchers Will Examine the Genetics of Self-Control and Its Impact on Addiction

When you take a late-model car in for service, the technician can simply plug it in and let a computer run a litany of diagnostics. A mechanical problem that could have taken days of guesswork in the past now can be done in just minutes. This allows the vehicle to get back on the road quickly and efficiently.

Wouldn’t it be great if our addictions could be treated the same way? Better still, if diagnostics could spot our addiction vulnerabilities early on, so that clinicians could proactively work to prevent addiction?

While it sounds like science fiction, “systems neurogenetics” may actually make such addiction treatment and prevention a reality. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health recently awarded nearly $12 million to The Jackson Laboratory in Maine to create a new Center for Systems Neurogenetics of Addiction.

Despite years of thinking that addiction was simply a moral failing that tough love could fix, modern science continues to show us there is no single right way to get sober. What drives one person to use won’t be the same for another person, even if they use the same substance. Indeed, the growing number of people with substance use disorders in the U.S. has proven the one-size-fits-all addiction treatment models of yesteryear do not work for everyone. It’s not as simple as saying “you have to really want to get sober.” Because many people truly do and still fail.

“Despite extensive evidence that addiction is a disease with variable individual risk, there is still a widespread misconception that addiction is a moral failing that is completely under the control of the individual,” Jackson Laboratory associate professor Elissa Chesler said in a news release.1 “We want to identify the ways in which some individuals are more likely than others to start using drugs or become addicted to drugs, and to better understand how the brain responds to drugs to explain and treat compulsive drug-seeking. Ultimately, the goal is to find new ways to prevent addiction in people who are at risk, and intervene in those who are already addicted.”

Despite extensive evidence that addiction is a disease with variable individual risk, there is still a widespread misconception that addiction is a moral failing that is completely under the control of the individual

Scientists Will Examine ‘Addiction Traits’ in Mice

Simply put, the team of scientists – behavioral neuroscientists from several universities, computational biologists, and geneticists – will build datasets of certain traits found in laboratory mice. The traits may include impulsivity, acute and sensitized drug responses, reward seeking, and sleep patterns. In this way, the researchers hope to “unravel mechanisms of addiction and extend the findings from mouse to human,” according to the Jackson Laboratory news release. “These data resources and sophisticated analysis tools will be available to the global research community. The center will also develop and share new mouse models of addiction susceptibility based on the mechanisms they discover.”

The scientific team will include J. David Jentsch, Empire Innovation professor of psychology at Binghampton University in New York. Jentsch has spent more than two decades researching self-control, something that commonly is lacking in people with addictions.

“An individual’s capacity for self-control may explain the difference between those who can use drugs for a while and yet successfully quit, and those that get trapped into the cycles of addiction,” Jentsch said in a Binghampton news release.2 “It is critical to understand the brain systems that make good self-control possible so that we can aid people who are motivated to quit but lack the ability to do so.”

Instead of taking a “moral inventory” of these state-of-the-art mouse models, researchers will be “deploying state-of-the-art behavioral and diagnostic tools, including those in the future JAX Center for Biometric Analysis,” Jackson Laboratory explains in the news release. “The researchers will evaluate advanced mouse populations with extremely high genetic and physiological variation (known as Collaborative Cross and Diversity Outbred mice) in search of traits that predispose individuals to addiction.”

Can Scientists One Day Prevent Addiction Before It Starts?

In the words of Shannon W., a 56-year-old mother of three adult sons, “Nobody chose to become an addict, and nobody chose to become an addict’s mom.”

Shannon shares her story on Heroes in Recovery, a website that promotes the sharing of personal stories related addiction and recovery.3 Two of her sons have battled addictions for years – the youngest and the oldest. For her boys, sobriety has been a constant struggle. The middle child, meanwhile, has not developed a substance use disorder.

“Her oldest son is smarter and older today,” interventionist Susanne Johnson writes in Shannon’s profile on the Heroes in Recovery website. “He told his mom that he finally became tired of the roller coaster and that he wanted help. He is currently in long-term residential treatment.”

The struggle continues for her youngest son too, but he also is seeking help. “He went to three different treatment centers without any long-term recovery success at first until Shannon told him that she is done and tired of all this and that he can’t come back to the house until he has it figured out for himself,” Johnson writes.

For addicts, and for mothers like Shannon, new breakthroughs in addiction science and treatment at places like Jackson Laboratory offer hope. Perhaps future generations can be spared the pain of addiction because of new prevention methods that result from scientific experiments of today.

Written by David Heitz

1 Peterson, J. (2016, Aug. 8) NIH grant to fund new Center for Systems Neurogenetics of Addiction. The Jackson Laboratory. Retrieved Oct. 6, 2016, from
2 American Association for the Advancement of Science, EurekAlert (Binghampton University, Aug. 23, 2016). New NIH-funded study to identify risks for vulnerability to drug addiction. Retrieved Oct. 6, 2016, from

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