Lesson “How Do Genes Affect Addiction?”

First published 2017. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

One of the keys to preventing negative consequences of drug and alcohol use is determining what puts people at risk for the disease of addiction. In the article “How Do Genes Affect Addiction?,” students will learn about the role of genetics in a person’s risk for addiction, as well as learn that genetics isn’t the only factor that influences the risk. Many other biological and environmental factors play a role, and students will get tips about choices they can make to reduce their risk. By sharing the article and skills sheet with your students, and teaching the lesson below, you can help them understand the risks and how to stay safe.


Science Literacy, English/Language Arts, Health/Life Skills


RST.6-8.1 / RST.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts MS-LS3.A / HS-LS3.A Inheritance of Traits Reproduction and Heredity
W.6-8.1 / W.9-10.1 Write arguments to support claims, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence MS-LS3.B / HS-LS3.B Variation of Traits Personal Health



  1. How might doctors use genetics to prevent or treat addiction in the future?
    (Answers may include that genetics might determine if a person’s genes put them at a higher risk for addiction. People who may have an increased risk because of genetics could be provided with counseling or other interventions. Doctors may one day be able to develop medications that can reverse the effects of high-risk genes.)
  2. Do you think scientists will find a single “addiction gene” that determines if someone will become addicted to drugs? Why or why not?
    (Answers may include that it is unlikely that a single addiction gene exists. There are many factors that determine whether a person becomes addicted to drugs or not. Genes might affect how a person reacts to drugs, but they don’t guarantee that a person will or will not develop an addiction.)
  3. Why is it important for people to understand the risk factors for addiction?
    (Answers may include that knowing their risk may help people make healthy choices; individuals can take actions that reduce risk factors, such as not taking drugs at a young age.)


  • Grades 6–8: Explain how genes could increase or decrease a person’s risk for addiction.
  • Grades 9–10: What are two reasons genetics research is important in understanding and treating addiction? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
  • Grades 11–12: Do you think individuals can control their risk for addiction? Why or why not?


The work sheet accompanying this lesson provides students with information about some of the different factors that can affect a person’s risk for addiction and asks critical-thinking questions about the information. Possible answers include:

  1. A protective factor is something that reduces the risk for addiction, such as strong family bonds or having friends who don’t use drugs. A risk factor is something that increases a person’s addiction risk, such as a family history of addiction or a lack of parental supervision.
    (Examples are found in the table.)
  2. A person with no family history of addiction and strong family bonds can still be at risk for addiction. These two factors alone do not determine whether or not a person will develop an addiction. Many factors can come into play, and everyone reacts differently to situations.
  3. A person can reduce his or her risk by increasing the number of protective factors in his or her life, such as spending time with people who are a positive influence and don’t use drugs; not taking drugs at a young age; and getting involved in after-school activities such as music, sports, or school clubs.


“PI: Pedigree Investigator, On the Case of Nicotine Addiction”

This activity gives more information about how pedigrees are constructed and has students complete one to see how nicotine addiction runs in a family.

Writing prompt: Does the family described in the activity support the theory that there is a genetic component to nicotine addiction? Use at least three pieces of evidence to support your answer. Explain how using a pedigree helped you determine your answer.

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