'Love Hormone' Touted as Drug Addiction Treatment

By Paul Gaita 04/17/17

Researchers are investigating the potential for the "love hormone" to help stave off relapse.

Young couple in love holding hands in the sunset in summer evening.

A brain hormone involved in emotional bonding and birth has been suggested as a possible treatment to help chronic drug users avoid relapse. Researchers from the United States and United Kingdom posited the idea after reviewing a wealth of studies and others about oxytocin, an amino acid peptide produced in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

The secretion of the hormone has been found to affect a wide variety of emotional, mental and physical functions, most notably during and after childbirth: oxytocin causes uterine contractions during labor, and is produced when an infant is breastfeeding, which stimulates the body to produce milk. The hormone is also connected to emotional bonding between individuals in a relationship—parents and children, romantic partners and even pets and owners—which has resulted in an informal nickname, "the love hormone." 

What the researchers found and published in the latest edition of the British Journal of Pharmacology was that oxytocin's interaction with the brain systems that produce reward sensations for social bonding scenarios, like with parents and children, also brings it into contact with other systems that generate a dopamine response, including chronic drug use and sexual activity.

Several studies suggested that chronic exposure to opioids caused a decrease in oxytocin production, while treatment using oxytocin or an analogue called carbetocin could help to reduce the physical and emotional issues brought on by opioid abstinence.

Other studies found that the hormone can prove beneficial in treating social cognition disorders such as autistic spectrum disorder or schizophrenia, which could also prove useful in reducing the stress that comes with interacting with others, both on a day-to-day basis or in situations like social support groups or behavioral therapy.

Senior review author Dr. Alexis Bailey noted, "Given the benefits that social support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have in keeping addicts abstinent, our findings in the review suggest the use of oxytocin, the pro-social hormone, could be an effective therapy for the prevention of relapse to drug use in drug-dependent individuals."

Bailey and his co-authors concluded their review by noting that future clinical studies are necessary to determine how oxytocin treatment would affect different stages of opioid addiction, as well as the proper dosage and method of delivery; the review noted that oxytocin has proven most effective through intranasal administration, though questions remain as to the safety of that method for chronic drug users.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.