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Traumatic childhood may increase the risk of drug addiction

August 31, 2012

Previous research has shown that personality traits such as impulsivity or compulsiveness are indicators of an increased risk of addiction. Now, new research from the University of Cambridge suggests that these impulsive and compulsive personality traits are also associated with a traumatic upbringing during childhood. The study was published today, 31 August, in the journal American Journal Psychiatry.

Led by Dr Karen Ersche, the Cambridge researchers aimed to identify risk factors that make a person vulnerable to developing drug dependence. They examined 50 adults with cocaine dependence together with their biological brothers and sisters who have never abused drugs. All participants underwent extensive assessments of their personalities, including their ways of feeling and thinking. The researchers were also interested in negative experiences that participants may have had during childhood (to include physical, emotional or sexual abuse).

Dr Ersche, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge, said: "It has long been known that abusive experiences during childhood have long-lasting effects on behaviour in adulthood and this was confirmed by our results. The siblings had more troubled childhoods compared to healthy peers in the community, and we also found a direct relationship between traumatic childhoods and their personalities."

She added: "This relationship is interesting because impulsive personality traits are known to increase the risk of becoming addicted to drugs but it is not an excuse for drug-taking."

The childhoods of the brothers and sisters of the cocaine-dependent individuals were also traumatic, and they also exhibited higher-than-normal levels of impulsive and compulsive behaviours, but they did not abuse drugs.

The researchers next intend to explore how the siblings who do not abuse drugs managed to deal with their traumatic childhoods and their highly impulsive and compulsive personalities. The scientists want to understand what makes the siblings resilient against addiction. A better understanding of what protected the brothers and sisters from drug abuse may provide vital clues for developing more effective therapeutic interventions for those trying to beat their addiction.

Dr Ersche added: "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."

-end-

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and conducted within the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, which is co-funded by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust.

For additional information please contact:

Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: direct, +44 (0) 1223 765542, +44 (0) 1223 332300
Mob: +44 (0) 7774 017464
Email: Genevieve.maul@admin.cam.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

1. The paper 'Cognitive Dysfunction and Anxious-Impulsive Personality Traits Are Endophenotypes for Drug Dependence' will be published online 31 August on American Journal Psychiatry website.

2. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.

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