Across the country, people with alcohol and substance use disorders work with physicians, nurses, therapists, and counselors every day to overcome addiction. They learn about how addiction affects their bodies, brains, and emotions. They participate in coping skills groups, relapse prevention groups, and in some cases receive therapy for co-occurring disorders. The clinicians who work with them observe, take notes, and analyze the relative success of their treatment modalities. They alter them when necessary and remove elements that aren’t productive. Through a process of trial and error, they discover what works and stick with it.
That’s how we make progress on the clinical level. Medical professionals collaborate with patients and communicate the effectiveness of treatment methods to their colleagues and peers. Treatments that work stay in use, while those that don’t are set aside. Meanwhile, on the research side, medical researchers spend their days, nights, and weekends in laboratories, searching for new medications and treatments for addiction. They study the brain to discover the precise brain mechanisms responsible for addiction and addictive behavior. They study our DNA in an attempt to identify genetic factors involved in addiction. Like clinicians, through a process of trial and error – known as the scientific method – they discover what has the potential to help and throw out what doesn’t.
They leave no stone unturned in their search for answers to the questions disordered alcohol and substance pose to our society. Recently, researchers attempted a new approach that yielded promising results. Instead of using an external, lab-produced medication to block alcohol cravings, they decided to try one of our brain’s own chemicals – oxytocin.
What is Oxytocin?
We should take a moment to qualify all this information by saying this research involves lab testing on animal subjects, and any effective medication derived from this research must pass through a stringent, graduated testing protocol before it reaches humans. However, that’s the way virtually all medical research that leads to medication works: it starts under the microscope in a lab, moves through stages of testing until it reaches the human population, and if it works, it becomes a medication.
But we digress.
Back to oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that, among other things, acts as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are our brain’s internal communication system. They’re small proteins that travel throughout the brain and body, delivering chemical messages from the endocrine system to our neurons and other cells. The brain produces them in response to both internal and external cues. They work all day every day to regulate most of our voluntary and involuntary mental and physiological processes.
Oxytocin, specifically, is a neurotransmitter associated with the following human functions and/or emotions:
- Sexual arousal
- Sexual and emotional bonding
- Maternal behavior
- Psychological stability
- Feelings of relaxation, satisfaction, or contentment
Researchers report that oxytocin is released in response to hugging, touching, and orgasm in both men and women. They believe it’s the main neurotransmitter involved in social bonding, trust, and recognition. For that reason, it’s often called the love hormone or the trust hormone.
The New Research
Previous studies show that administration of oxytocin to individuals struggling with alcohol and substance use disorders can reduce consumption, decrease withdrawal symptoms, and diminish drug-seeking behaviors. In the most recent study on the use of oxytocin for addiction treatment, researchers wanted to pinpoint exactly why and how oxytocin achieved these effects. They narrowed their study to alcohol and designed an experiment using lab rats as test subjects. They focused on specific brain areas they thought might explain the phenomena previously observed in humans.
Here’s what they found:
- Alcohol-dependent rats consume greater quantities of alcohol than non-alcohol-dependent rats – researchers determined this to find a baseline for comparison.
- In alcohol-dependent rats, administration of oxytocin decreased levels of alcohol consumption.
- Consumption returned to the same levels as non-alcohol-dependent rats.
- Oxytocin did not affect non-alcohol related behaviors in alcohol-dependent or non-alcohol-dependent rats.
- Oxytocin did not affect alcohol consumption in non-alcohol-dependent rats.
The authors of this study expressed surprise at one aspect of their results: the data showing administration of oxytocin affected the consumption of alcohol in the alcohol-dependent rats and not in the non-alcohol-dependent rats. This information confirmed their hypothesis that specific brain areas change in the alcohol-dependent brain, and led them to conclude that further research should consider the different effects medications – not just oxytocin – have on individuals both with and without alcohol and/or substance use disorders.
The Future of Treatment
The current best-practice model for the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders is well-known. Treatment centers offer individuals a personalized, integrated plan that includes a combination of therapy, counseling, social support, and medication if necessary. We understand now that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. We know it requires lifestyle changes as well as treatment. In that way, it’s similar to other chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.
Medications are part of the solution, but not the entire solution.
The same will be true for any medication researchers develop to help battle addiction. Since we understand addiction has powerful behavioral components that have emotional and psychological origins, very few mental health professionals believe one pill or injection will ever cure addiction. However, if the administration of a naturally occurring compound such as oxytocin can reduce alcohol consumption in people with an alcohol use disorder – as this new research indicates it might – then we’ll have one more powerful tool with which we can battle addiction and help people achieve life-long sobriety.