In new research published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Karen Ersche has shown that certain cognitive differences and personality traits, as well as a traumatic childhood, may increase the risk of developing drug addiction.
Dr Ersche compared participants dependent on stimulant drugs, like cocaine and amphetamine, with their biological siblings who were not using drugs, and with unrelated healthy control participants. Her team administered a large number of different tests and questionnaires which looked, amongst other things, at cognitive, personality and childhood factors.
Drug-dependent individuals were found to be cognitively impaired relative to their siblings and controls, although since we cannot tell what level they functioned at prior to drug use, it is possible this is an outcome of drug abuse rather than a cause. However, impairments in cognitive control, together with anxious-impulsive personality traits, were found in drug users and their siblings. Since the siblings share genetic information, this suggests that these traits were likely to precede drug dependence and may represent a risk factor for developing these problems.
In consideration of the childhood of all participants, it was found that drug users and their siblings had experienced more traumatic childhoods than the unrelated control participants. This confirms what has long been believed: that negative experiences in early life can significantly increase the risk of developing drug dependence later in life.
Dr Ersche said, “Not all individuals with these personality traits would have had a traumatic upbringing. Nor does everyone with these traits develop an addiction. However, our findings show that some people are particularly at risk and their upbringing may have contributed to it.”
What needs to be explored next is what protects some individuals, such as the non-drug-dependent siblings in this study, from developing subsequent drug problems despite early life trauma and personality factors that should put them at risk.