Keeping former drug abusers clean for the long haul is notoriously difficult, but scientists believe novel therapies developed from oxytocin may offer hope to addicts trying to kick the habit.
Researchers began studying oxytocin’s effects on drug cravings during the 1990s, and a 1999 issue of the journal Progress in Brain Research noted that the hormone reduces withdrawal symptoms and lowers tolerance to various addictive drugs, including opiates, cocaine and alcohol.
“The idea that the craving system can be altered is really exciting,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego and an oxytocin researcher. “The problem with any medication-based addiction treatment is that addiction is not all about cravings. But to have another tool would be great.”
Current drug withdrawal treatment often uses tapered doses of substances with similar sedative and opiate properties, a strategy that does not reduce – and may increase – tolerance to the abused drugs, according to Biologic Therapeutics, a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This may result in persistent cravings after detoxification efforts and a heightened risk for relapse.
“Oxytocin decreases withdrawal by a completely different mechanism, which will very likely result in much less craving after detox is completed,” according to Biologic Therapeutics. “No other anti-craving drug works by this mechanism.”
A May 2008 British Journal of Pharmacology study examined how oxytocin interacts with commonly used party drugs such as Ecstasy and the “date rape” drug GHB, which may take advantage of oxytocin to produce their pro-social and pro-sexual effects.
The researchers, from the University of Sydney in Australia, said these drugs might cause long-lasting damage to the brain’s oxytocin system, which may prevent the rising levels of oxytocin that could reduce withdrawal symptoms.
The study concluded that oxytocin “may play an important, yet largely unexplored, role in drug addiction. Greater understanding of this role may lead to novel therapeutics for addiction that can improve mood and facilitate the recovery of those with drug use problems.”
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central email@example.com or call (405) 476-1983