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Genetic variant may be key to treating opioid addiction in African-Americans

Yale University researchers have located a genetic variant peculiar to African-Americans. They believe identifying this anomaly may benefit opioid-dependent individuals who are on methadone maintenance.

The gene

The research, published in Molecular Psychiatry, pinpoints the gene OPRM1. This gene determines how opioids affect the brain. According to the study, tracking the genetic variant can help physicians determine whether an individual is receiving the proper methadone dosage.

Methadone dosing

Methadone maintenance programs have been in existence since the late 1960s. Like heroin, methadone is an opioid, but produces less of a high and reduces cravings. The Yale researchers note that correct dosing is critical to an effective maintenance regimen. Too high of a dose can induce stupor and may depress the central nervous system (CNS), which can lead to respiratory failure. Too low of a dose will leave the addicted person craving more and lead to relapse.

Not found in European ancestry

The researchers only found this genetic variant in individuals with African ancestry. It is not present in individuals of European descent. (All study subjects were enrolled in methadone maintenance programs.) The researchers note that more study is required to validate these findings.

Safer but not foolproof

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains national data on drug-related deaths. The CDC categorizes drug deaths as poisonings. In 2004, poisonings surpassed deaths related to firearms for the first time. The majority of poisonings are unintentional drug overdoses. In 2014, drug overdoses accounted for the majority of poisoning deaths. In the seven years from 2005 to 2012, drug overdose fatalities increased dramatically; over that period, deaths related to methadone kept pace with opioid fatalities.

Sovereign Health of El Paso, Texas, works indefatigably to reverse the scourge of opioid addiction. We treat each patient as our only patient. This means we create a tailored treatment plan specific to the patient’s needs. We offer detox services involving around-the-clock medical assistance to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms. We treat opioid addiction as well as any underlying co-occurring mental disorders. Please contact the 24/7 helpline listed on this webpage for more information.

About the author

Darren Fraser is a staff writer for Sovereign Health. He worked two and half years as a reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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