VCU Study: Bad environment Augments Genetic Risk for Drug Abuse

Researchers use adoption model to understand impact of genetics and environment

The risk of abusing drugs is greater – even for adopted children – if the family environment in which they are raised is dysfunctional, according to a new study conducted by a collaborative team from Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden.

Previous research suggests that drug abuse is strongly influenced by a mix of genetic factors and the environment, including influences of family and peers. That research is primarily based on twin studies and typically involves families that are intact. Relatives that share genes and environment make it difficult to determine if the family dysfunction is linked to the drug abuse or if it is genetics at play. There have been no large-scale adoption studies performed to verify the findings, until now.

In the study, published online March 5 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers examined how genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk for drug abuse in adoptees. Using a large and representative adoption sample from Sweden, they demonstrate that genetic factors played a moderate role in the liability to drug abuse.

“For an adoptee, having a biological parent with drug abuse who did not raise you doubles your risk for drug abuse,” said first author Kenneth Kendler, M.D., director of the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

“But we also found an important role for environmental factors. If you have an adoptive sibling - with whom you have no genetic relationship - develop drug abuse, that also doubles your risk for drug abuse,”

More importantly, according to Kendler, the team showed that the impact of your genes on risk for drug abuse is much stronger if you are raised in a high-risk rather than a low-risk environment.  

“A bad environment can augment the effect of genetic risk on drug abuse,” he said.

Kendler, professor of psychiatry, and human and molecular genetics in the VCU School of Medicine, and a team of researchers from Lund University led by Jan Sundquist, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Primary Health Care Research, and Kristina Sundquist, M.D., Ph.D., professor of family medicine at the Center for Primary Health Care Research, analyzed nine public registry data sets compiled between 1961 and 2009 of adoptees and their biological and adoptive relatives from Sweden.

The study population included more than 18,100 adoptees born between 1950 and 1993; 78,079 biological parents and siblings and more than 51,200 adoptive parents and siblings.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the Swedish Research Council and ALF project grant.

Additional key collaborators on this project included VCU researcher Hermine Maes, Ph.D.; Henrik Ohlsson, Ph.D., and Karolina Palmér, Ph.D., from Lund University in Malmö, Sweden; and Marilyn A. Winkleby, Ph.D., M.P.H., from Stanford University School of Medicine.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A copy of the study is available for reporters by contacting JAMA/Archives Media Relations at 312-464-5262 or

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see


News Directors: Broadcast access to VCU experts can be arranged through the university’s VideoLink ReadyCam studio. ReadyCam transmits video and audio via fiber optics through a system that is routed to your newsroom. To schedule a live or taped interview, contact VCU University Public Affairs, (804) 828-1231.

About Lund University

Lund University is one of Europe’s leading universities. Here, history and tradition lay the ground for the study and research environments of tomorrow. We offer education and research within engineering, science, law, social sciences, economics and management, medicine, humanities, theology, fine art, music and theatre. Through interaction with business and the community we ensure that knowledge and innovations benefit society. The University has 47,000 students and 6,300 staff from all over the world, based mainly in Lund, Malmö and Helsingborg. We work with 680 partner universities in more than 50 countries.