Richard G. Petty, MD

Addiction, Learning and Genes

Many of us have been mourning the death of George Best at the age of just 59. Arguably one of the most skillful players ever to kick a soccer ball, he finally succumbed to the slow suicide of alcohol abuse. Yet in the midst of all the opinion pieces that have tried to unravel the reasons for his alcohol abuse, all seem to have missed out on something very important. It has been missed because so many people have become wedded to the simple notion that there is one cause for one problem.

We have all seen so many television programs on which people have tearfully recounted the traumas that have befallen them, and we are then told that their current problems, whether of addiction, or of an inability to trust, or of serial infidelity, are all the result of having learned these behaviors, usually in childhood. So a person becomes an alcoholic because they saw their father drinking. An awful lot of therapy, and self-help is based upon that faulty premise. Why is it faulty? Because these people also share the same genes, and because, try as we might, we cannot reduce the whole of human behavior to ONLY learning, or ONLY genes. Most of the genes in the brain do not so much force you into behaving in a certain way; they instead predispose you to the way that you will handle something in your immediate environment.

So in the case of George Best, virtually all the tributes have said that the poor man become an alcoholic because he could not deal with all the fame, adulation and pressure that accompanied becoming soccer’s first real superstar. And doubtless, those were factors. But there is something else: his mother also died of complications of alcoholism, when she was 58 years old. Her drinking was attributed to watching her son succeed and then crash and burn. Possibly. But it is far more likely that it happened because they were both genetically predisposed to alcoholism.

When we try to understand a problem like this, it is essential not just to focus on the obvious cause: stress, or trauma, but also to look at the physical predisposition to reacting to the stress or trauma. Some people can be assailed by the most dreadful events, and come out smiling, while others have their lives ruined. It is also essential to look at the social context. George Best was brought from Belfast to Manchester when he was only 15 years old, and went home after two days because he was so homesick. He was persuaded to return to Manchester, and everyone tried to create a surrogate family for him, but it was obviously very difficult for him. It is also important to know that alcohol and substance abuse can cause havoc in the subtle systems of the body. That is why, when we treat people suffering form these illnesses, we encourage them to do some work, like Qigong or Yoga, to strengthen their subtle systems. Finally there is often a spiritual component to these problems. It is no coincidence that “spirits” as in alcohol and “spirit” as in spirituality, come from the same Latin root, in recognition of the ancient worship of the god Bacchus. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith recognized this link when they founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. Many people who have struggled with addictions have been able to achieve sobriety once they discover and acknowledge the spiritual aspect of their lives, or in some cases that their substance abuse has been a reaction to a deep spiritual hunger.

Newsweek has an excellent article on the progress being made in our understanding of the physical components of addiction. The article highlights the complexity of the illness and the extraordinarily high relapse rates of sufferers.

There is only one quibble that I have with the article, and that is that it perpetuates the idea that substances of abuse hijack the “reward systems” of the brain. The reason why this is not quite correct is that it is a bit of a misnomer to talk about “reward systems.” These days we prefer to talk about salience systems. What does this mean? If something pleasurable happens to you, then the dopamine and GABA systems of the brain are indeed stimulated. And it appears that in substance abusers this system does not respond properly. So that they self-medicate because they have a form of sensory deprivation in these systems and that is the only way to get the dopamine levels that they need. But we now learn that dopamine also rises in the self same regions of the brain in response to threat. So what this system is doing is deciding what is salient, or important in the environment, and then focusing on and responding to it. It is these salience systems that seem to be under some genetic control, and can predispose someone to becoming a substance abuser.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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