Meth is Less Rewarding When You've Got a Social Life

By Dirk Hanson 06/02/11

Animal study shows how a solid social network helps protect against drug abuse--by literally changing the way the brain works.

One is the loneliest number.
Photo via ccnowl

Face it: We're a bit too much like mice for comfort. Enough like them, however unflattering the comparison, to allow mice and other rodents to be used in important animal studies of brain behavior. Unfortunately, we can’t always say with precision exactly how well any given results apply strictly to human behavior. But the scientific answer is: You’d be surprised how often they do line up.

Take research studies on drugs, reward, craving, and addiction. Mice are perfect for this. They get drunk, they get hung over, they drink for the buzz and not the taste, and a similar percentage of them are naturally alcoholics—although these days you can breed strains of lab mice that are purely alcoholic, or teetotalers, or moderate drinkers, or whatever you need for your experiments.

To be precise, in this case, prairie voles. There is a solid pile of research in both humans and animals showing that strong social bonds—steady relationships with one’s two- or four-footed fellows—exerts a protective effect against drug and alcohol abuse. The less well-connected you are in a social network of friends, family, and acquaintances, the more likely your chances of getting into trouble with drugs, and the more difficult your odds for rehab and recovery. This isn’t New Age mysti-poo; it’s established medical science.

 What’s interesting about the rodents in question is not just that those forming long-term pair bonds were less interested in free hits of amphetamine than their freebooting friends. What’s interesting is a study that Zuoxin Wang and colleagues at Florida State University published in The Journal of Neuroscience, which found changes in dopamine function indicating that “the pair bonding experience may alter the neurobiological response to drugs of abuse, which in turn may diminish the rewarding effects of the drug itself.” Amphetamine use in single voles caused the usual increases in dopamine receptor activity in the reward area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. The same level of receptor activity in the reward region of the brain was not seen in the paired-up voles when they got their meth. There is the suggestion here that a solid social network may help protect vulnerable people from drug abuse specifically because social networks actually change the way the brain works at the most fundamental level. Now if we can only find out if Facebook friends count.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]