One of the explanations for addiction is that a drug takes over the parts of the brain that have to do with reward, tolerance, and stress responses, making it view the drug as something to be sought out. Recent studies have suggested that addiction treatment could be accomplished by hijacking a different system in the brain to counteract these drug-seeking signals.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, controlling social interactions and reproduction. In women, oxytocin is responsible for several factors in childbirth, including contractions and lactation. In men, it plays a role in testosterone production and the movement of sperm.
What does a reproductive hormone have to do with addiction? It turns out that oxytocin also helps regulate emotions, pain, stress, and reward behaviors. Meth, for example, increases the production of dopamine in the brain, which is involved with motivation and reinforcing behaviors. The brain learns that meth=reward and makes the body want to repeat the experience of taking the drug. The initial high from meth produces feelings of euphoria, self-confidence, and increased energy.
A study published in Biological Psychiatry examined meth use in rats. The rats were allowed to self-administer the drug while the researchers gave them oxytocin. There was no clear effect on the amount of meth the rats consumed when access to the drug was effortless, but the oxytocin significantly decreased the amount of effort the rats were willing to put into obtaining the meth. It also decreased relapse rates.
The effects in the rats took place in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that contains reward circuits in humans. It’s promising that the benefits might be the same in human subjects. Early clinical trials are underway to test the effectiveness of oxytocin as a nasal spray to help reduce addiction.
The use of oxytocin to treat addiction might have one unexpected positive side effect. Drug use tends to derail relationships and romantic bonding because the parts of the brain that normally receive pleasure from these behaviors are taken over by responses to the drugs. When the signals from drugs are replaced by oxytocin, the desire for social and romantic bonding will return.
Oxytocin has been shown to have some effect on other drugs as well. MDMA, known as molly or ecstasy, is a synthetic drug that has both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. It increases energy, pleasure, and positive emotions, and it distorts sensory and time perception. Like meth, it increases dopamine production in the brain, but researchers have found that MDMA increases oxytocin levels, leading to an overall feeling of wellbeing. Scientists at the University of Sydney were able to eliminate a significant amount of these positive feelings associated with MDMA use by blocking oxytocin.
If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504.