Finding Addiction’s Holy Grail
By AMITY MOORE JOYCE
Pam Pearce shares how the recently patented GARS test brought peace and prevention to her and her children.
Like many alcoholics, Pam Pearce was convinced her genetics predisposed her to alcohol use disorder. Now she has proof. While participating in the National Collegiate Recovery Conference in Houston in 2018, she attended a breakout session on genetics and prevention and was introduced to a genetic test capable of identifying genetic vulnerability to substances and behaviors that could lead to addiction. “To me, it was like opening the Holy Grail,” she says of the test and the presentation. “It gave me everything I needed to go as fast as I could [toward learning more about genetics’ relationship to addiction].”
SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER AS A SUPERPOWER
Pearce has been in long-term recovery for 23 years. She began drinking at age 14 as a freshman in high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She graduated not with great grades but with the senior superlatives of Biggest Partier and Best Dressed. She was a binge drinker, unable to have just one or two drinks. She had friends who told her that drinking wasn’t really working for her, who told her that she shouldn’t drink. Still, wanting to be like “all kids her age,” she persevered. She didn’t think she had a problem because she believed the story handed down by adults, the one that claims all kids experiment and eventually grow out of it. Also, her dad drank, and he seemed to have a decent life. She thought, like him, that she could control it.
Reflecting on those years, now armed with knowledge and wisdom, she says, “I knew I was different, but I didn’t have the education to understand what was happening. Not having the education or true understanding that substance use disorder (SUD) comes in different shapes, sizes, drug choice, frequency of use, I couldn’t correlate that my dad, despite being highly educated, financially successful and a loving father, had the disease.”
In college, life started to slow down. Her peers were focused on their educations and futures, and alcohol and drugs were not holding them back. Pearce again started to feel how she was different. “I just couldn’t do what everyone was doing, you know — make good grades, party and have a normal life. Mine started to slow down and become chaotic.”
So, she began exhibiting what she calls “textbook behavior” for sufferers of SUD. “I switched colleges. I ended up going to three different ones, ultimately graduating from USC in California. I’m textbook — I tried different friends, different drugs, different drinks, different times of days, weeks.”
A DUI in her early 20s and an admission from her boyfriend at the time led her to seek treatment. Pearce remembers that boyfriend, now her husband, saying to her, “I’ve never met anyone more alive, Pam, than you, but I can’t do this. I choose not to do this.” By “this,” he meant be in a relationship with someone demonstrating what he recognized as alcoholic behavior. He had watched his own father’s life and relationships become a mess because of alcoholism.
Pearce’s last drink was on July 12, 1995.
She credits her successful sobriety in part to the fact that she doesn’t hide her recovery. “I have always shared that I’m a person in recovery,” she says. “I want everyone to know that this is what it looks like. Substance use disorder, addiction or alcoholism doesn’t care who your parents were. I’ll share that I’m in recovery anywhere I’m at — in the line at the grocery store, at the gas station. I want people to know. Not only does it hold me accountable, but it allows people grace. We’re imperfect people. To try to achieve perfection, you’re never going to hit it.
“I believe substance use disorder is a superpower. I tell people I meet in recovery, ‘You are gifted beyond words. That gift comes with a price. The minute you’re under the influence, it’s like we become a weapon. You’re not different, bad; you are different, good. Drugs and alcohol are kryptonite. You’re never going to be able to manage it. The price is that you cannot live under the influence, but your life will be spectacular.’”
Pearce’s own life has been guided and sharpened by her disease. As the executive director and community organizer at Community Living Above in West Linn, Oregon, she has provided resources and support to hundreds of community members and works with more than 200 young people interested in drug and alcohol prevention. In addition, she is helping open Oregon’s first recovery high school in August this year as well as an alternative peer group, also launching in 2019.
As important as these initiatives and actions are to her, Pearce shares that all of her work is done so her own children can make choices that best serve them, which is why she believes strongly in prevention and the genetic links to substance use disorder. This passion, her “wheelhouse,” she says, is what led her to the breakout session and the work of Dr. Kenneth Blum and Geneus Health.
THE GARS TEST
Blum began trying to identify the “alcoholism gene” in 1968. In his 50 years of studying the brain, genetics and connections to addiction, he identified the first gene linked to alcoholism and discovered that all addictions stem from inefficiencies in dopamine production. His research introduced reward deficiency syndrome (RDS), a term he coined in 1996 that refers to common genetic predispositions to potentially addictive substances and behaviors. Mental Health Daily expands the definition: “People carrying the A1 allele tend to have insufficient numbers of D2 receptors in their brain, resulting in lack of pleasure and reward from activities that would provide others with pleasure.” Essentially, Blum explains during a recent telephone interview, “the dysregulation of dopamine can lead to addictive behaviors.” The behaviors, as part of RDS, are now officially recognized in the SAGE Encyclopedia of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology.
Blum’s research also led to the development of the Genetic Addiction Risk Score (GARS) test, which earned a patent on Sept. 11, 2018. Through a swab from the interior of a person’s cheek, the labs at San Antonio-based Geneus Health, distributors of the test, can determine an individual’s predisposition toward addictive, impulsive, obsessive-compulsive and personality disorder behaviors. Geneus Health’s CEO Justin Jones explains: “The GARS test uses data from a panel of 10 genes and cross-references genetic deficits to determine a person’s risk assessment. This process and algorithm make up our patent.
“The test identifies a person’s overall GARS score based on a scale of 1 to 22,” he adds. “It then tells a person what RDS behaviors they are predisposed to on a scale of low, moderate to high.”
When asked about Blum’s and Jones’ vision for the greater impact of the test, Jones says, “To be used as a preventive tool for doctors who prescribe narcotics but also for anyone who wants to know more information about themselves, their children, so they can live a healthier lifestyle.”
For teens and young adults, the test provides helpful information, or a “genetic selfie,” as Blum calls it, so students can make lifestyle decisions based on knowledge about themselves. “Right now, people go through life blind to certain things they could be predisposed to. The GARS test, we equate it to a GPS system for life,” says Jones.
Adds Blum: “The test is not an absolute. College students are more likely to try different things, and they may still imbibe to be social, but if they’ve taken the test and gotten their results, they may be more careful about what they’re doing because they know their risks.”
APPLYING THE TEST
What Blum describes is what happened in Pearce’s family. After learning about the test at the conference, Pearce swabbed her cheek and received the results about two weeks later. She found the report and explanation so fascinating and helpful that she also tested her three children, then ages 12, 17 and 19.
“My children have higher numbers than I do,” she shares, probably because their father also has SUD in his family. “It was shocking when I saw my children’s numbers. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ But Justin was gracious in going over the results with us. ‘Hey, Pam,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you’re focused on the numbers, but remember knowledge is power. This is not a death sentence. This is understanding who your children are genetically. And it’s 50 percent of the game. The other 50 percent is your environment.’”
She goes on to say that within a few days of interpreting the test results, her oldest son came to her saying he wanted to quit Juuling. Jones had told him that his proclivity for nicotine addiction was so strong that if he saw someone smoking on the street, he should cross to the other side. That information resonated with Pearce’s son, in much the way that Blum described. The test results educated the 19-year-old about his risk, and he wanted to be more careful.
Meanwhile, the results from Pearce’s 12-year-old daughter revealed her vulnerability to glucose and overeating, which enabled Pearce to start a dialogue about healthy eating — without her pre-teen misinterpreting the conversation as one tainted by body shaming or ideas about being fat.
“That test allowed me to have a conversation with my daughter that was matter of fact, almost medical,” Pearce says. “I was able to say to her, ‘This is who you are. Let’s figure it out now so you don’t have a lifetime of it.’ So now we have conversations about what she has eaten during the day. I help her identify that frantic feeling that leads to wanting to eat that way, and then I encourage her to find something else to do.”
In this way, Pearce is managing the environment Jones mentioned. The GARS test reveals the genetic piece of the addiction equation; being mindful of the environment comprises the other half. Parents appreciate the education the test offers because, once armed with the genetics details, then they can make informed decisions about their child’s environment. For example, Jones notes that “if a child has a high predisposition to online gaming, parents can better manage their children’s playing time.” Or, parents may want to limit how much alcohol or drug use takes place in front of their children. “Some parents are more stringent than others with their approach, but the bottom line is by knowing this information, even the smallest changes can have a positive impact,” Jones says.
For doctors, the knowledge can prevent future problems for patients. Jones explains: “If a person has a high predisposition for opioid use, you don’t want to write that person a monthlong prescription for OxyContin or Hydrocodone. You want to write a much shorter prescription, have them come in, monitor the person and make sure that the pain management isn’t turning into a physical dependency.” Thus, it’s helpful to share GARS test results with medical professionals.
The test is just another tool in everyone’s toolbox, says Pearce. “Why wouldn’t you use it?”
THE LINK BETWEEN RDS AND NUTRIENTS
Not only have Blum and Geneus Health developed the GARS test, but their research also has led them to connections between dopamine functioning and nutrients. As a result, they have developed a genetically guided therapy, restoreGen, which restores nutrients in the brain. The genetic test identifies the abnormal dopamine function and then matches it to customized pill therapy. As explained in a Geneus Health press release, “restoreGen is a pro-dopamine regulator that consists of six different neuro-nutrient formulations that supplement genetic dysfunction and rebalance brain chemistry. Each restoreGen formulation is tailored to the genetic outcomes of the individual’s GARS report.”
The pro-dopamine regulator therapy helps prevent additional damage while also bringing about correction. “We may be getting some repair,” says Blum, “but we can’t say that for sure.” Yet. Blum is looking forward to more longitudinal studies, but for now, he is confident that the GARS test coupled with restoreGen helps balance dopamine, reduces stress and allows people suffering from addiction to finally have proof that genetics plays a part in their disease. Plus, the test is a tool for prevention, which can be used by parents, like Pearce, as well as doctors, treatment providers and anyone else wanting to understand their vulnerability to addictive substances and behaviors.