Oxytocin, a key hormone made naturally by the brain, could hold one of the keys to treating drug addicts and help them avoid relapse, a new study suggests. The neurohypophyseal peptide oxytocin is most often associated with childbirth and breast feeding, but has multiple psychological effects, influencing social behavior and emotion.

The hormone it has an anti-anxiety effect, and many studies have looked at the role of oxytocin in addiction. Researchers at St George’s, University of London, reviewed all the published evidence on oxytocin, and conclude that the oxytocin system is profoundly affected by opioid use and abstinence.

The review, which includes important studies conducted by Dr. Alexis Bailey’s group, suggests the oxytocin system can be an important target for developing new medicines for the treatment of opioid addiction and prevention of relapse among addicts.

Opioid Addiction And Oxytocin

Certain psychoactive drugs, such as opioids, activate pathways in the brain that induce pleasurable effects, which make the user want to repeat the experience, but as drug use continues, brain tolerance to the effects of the drug increases and a greater dose is needed to achieve the same effects.

Dr Alexis Bailey, senior author of the review, said:

“Given the benefits that social support programmes 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. Since the evidence is so clear, the need for clinical studies looking into this is obvious."

Oxytocin, a nine amino acid peptide, was discovered by Sir Henry Dale in 1906. It is produced in the hypothalamus.

Zanos, P., Georgiou, P., Weber, C., Robinson, F., Kouimtsidis, C., Niforooshan, R., and Bailey, A. (2017) Oxytocin and opioid addiction revisited: old drug, new applications British Journal of Pharmacology, doi: 10.1111/bph.13757

Image: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images. Colour-enhanced SEM image of morphine crystals.

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