The influence of and on epigenetics


Comments   |   Blog, Substance Abuse

Narcan bottle imageOn a daily basis I am astonished by the resilience of the kids at CASTLE.  One remarkable story follows another.  Some kids are ready for sobriety, others are in a pre-contemplative state.  One boy overdosed on heroin and needed Narcan to live.  But in his current state of denial he has tried to convince himself he can still shoot dope, but just a little at a time.

Another kid woke up one day and recognized she was spending all the money she earned on weed, thought about it all day, went stoned to school, and was stoned at home.  She was lying to her parents, and had a stash of Visine next to her stash of marijuana.  She just wanted them to trust her again, so she had told them she needed help.

Yet another spoke about how she would get “free” DXM from the store, finally acknowledging that “free” meant stolen.

And another talked about his sadness that he had never felt loved enough, and that his parents loved his twin but crippled brother even more.  His own drug and alcohol use were an escape but also a desperate attempt to be crippled by drugs: maybe then he would be more loved.

So how does a person stop using?  With the help of all of us.  Like stolen jewelry, it is the person on drugs who has been taken from us.  The path to their sobriety is through us, and a deeper understanding of the brain that craves drugs and alcohol at that moment more than the companionship of another human.

Double Helix, DNA sequenceMost people have heard about genetics, that we inherit traits from our parents: eye color, skin tone, both external and internal manifestations of the combination of genes from our mom and dad.  Sometimes these genes mutate, sometimes they rearrange.  It was in these mechanisms that inheritance and evolution was meant to occur.  If you got a good set of genes you were more likely to survive, and pass those genes on to the next generation.  The famous double helix structure first described by Watson and Crick in 1953 was a remarkable article of only 952 words. [1]

But there is a new understanding exploding in the literature: epigenetics.  This idea suggests that the environment itself can alter the genes, tagging them to turn on or off.  And these genetic switches can be heritable, passed on to the next generation.  If the world we live in can impact the world we pass on to our children, what will be passed on to the children of  the kid who overdosed, the kid who was lying to her parents, the kid who stole DXM, or the kid who was unconsciously trying to cripple himself?

Epigenetic code diagramI talk about epigenetics to the CASTLE kids.  Not trying to scare them but to empower them with knowledge.  The reality is that no one will ever be scared out of using drugs or alcohol.  If the brain is going to choose between fear and pleasure, it will choose pleasure every time.  But there is pleasure in power. Knowledge is power.  The power to make choices.  The knowledge to understand addiction.  The recognition that we control no one and influence everyone, so in a very real way we are the epigenetic forces on each other.

The Imax blends two powerful external domains of home and social worlds with the two internal domains of our self-concept and our biology.  The result is our Imax, our current maximum potential.  It is another way to appreciate the genetic and now epigenetic forces and how addiction and sobriety play their parts.  We control no one but influence everyone.  What kind of influence do you want to be?


[1] 1. Nature. 1953 Apr 25;171(4356):737-8.
Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid.