Can The "Love Hormone" Help Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

By Beth Leipholtz 04/17/19

Scientists examined whether oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, could be a viable treatment for alcohol use disorder.

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woman holding a love hormone replica heart

When administered nasally, a spray of oxytocin led alcohol-dependent rats to drink less, a new study has found

Lead study author Brendan Tunstall, a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), tells Inverse that his belief is that eventually, oxytocin could be a form of treatment for alcohol use disorder. 

“Preliminary studies in humans have already indicated that oxytocin may have beneficial effects in reducing physical signs of alcohol withdrawal and decreasing alcohol craving,” he tells Inverse.

“However, larger studies are needed to determine the potential therapeutic usefulness of intranasal oxytocin administration for alcohol use disorder.”

Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” is a neuropeptide, meaning it signals the brain during “tender situations.”

To determine whether oxytocin works for treating alcohol use disorder, Tunstall and his team took a group of alcohol-dependent rats and a non-dependent control group and gave them both a dose nasally. 

Afterwards, when they were exposed to alcoholic drinks, the alcohol-dependent rats did not choose to drink them. They did, however, still drink sugar water. The control group did not show any differences. Tunstall says this shows that the oxytocin affected the rats’ desire for alcohol specifically.  

The reasoning behind this, Tunstall says, has to do with gamma amminobutyric acid (GABA) signaling in the brain. In the past, it has been proven that GABA signaling increases for those with short and long-term alcohol use. Tunstall and his team wanted to determine whether oxytocin would help GABA signal levels return to normal. 

“Together, these results provide converging evidence that oxytocin specifically and selectively blocks the enhanced motivation for alcohol drinking that develops in alcohol dependence likely via a central mechanism that may result from altered oxytocin effects on CeA GABA transmission in alcohol dependence,” the study authors wrote. “Neuroadaptations in endogenous oxytocin signaling may provide a mechanism to further our understanding of alcohol use disorder.”

In previous experiments with rats, Tunstall and his team determined that alcohol led to “hyperactive GABA signaling,” which was no surprise. But they also found that oxytocin seemed to lessen the effects of GABA signals when it came to the rats, which they think could be responsible for the changes they have observed in the alcohol-dependent rats.  

Even though the results of this recent study indicate that oxytocin could be helpful in treating alcohol use disorder, Tunstall says the study only examines the neuropeptide’s effect on one neuron category in the brain. This could be problematic if alcohol use disorder is rooted in another area of the brain entirely, he says. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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