Nature's love drug offers hope to addicts

The feel-good effects of oxytocin could reverse the impact of drug and alcohol use.
Photo / Thinkstock
The feel-good effects of oxytocin could reverse the impact of drug and alcohol use. Photo / Thinkstock

Nature's love drug, oxytocin, could hold the key to helping alcoholics overcome their addiction.

Australian scientists have launched clinical trials involving alcoholics using oxytocin Nasal sprays, to see if extra doses of the hormone can make drugs less appealing.

The trials follow earlier studies in rats who were quite partial to drinking alcohol and getting high on methamphetamines.

However, when given oxytocin injections, their interest in alcohol and drugs plummeted.

Oxytocin has anti-stress effects when released in men and women, who experience a surge after giving birth as part of nature's way of helping them bond with their babies.

University of Sydney researcher Professor Iain McGregor said if scientists could harness oxytocin's feel-good effects into a medical treatment it could reverse the impact of drug and alcohol use or even make people less vulnerable to addiction.

"With excessive alcohol consumption or methamphetamines or cocaine use, people get depleted levels of oxytocin in the brain," he said.

"So what we might be doing by treating people with oxytocin is restoring the brain system that's been changed from alcohol and drug abuse.

"If you can naturally boost their oxytocin levels you can make people less vulnerable to addiction."

Prof McGregor outlined the results of the rat studies to delegates at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs conference in Hobart.

Adolescent rats were given daily oxytocin injections for 10 days before they had any exposure to alcohol.

Once they reached adulthood, those who had received the oxytocin were not as interested in alcohol and were more sociable than rats not given the injections.

The rats who had had the injections also had higher levels of oxytocin in their brains, suggesting the injection they received had long-lasting effects.

Other studies have found oxytocin has similar effects in deterring rats from wanting to indulge in methamphetamines.

But if an oxytocin medication is developed one day to help addicts, is there a chance they would get hooked on oxytocin?

"We don't think so but you never know," Prof McGregor said.

"We know from giving humans intraNasal oxytocin sprays it doesn't seem to have any abuse potential.

"People don't take it and feel like they're on ecstasy. It has a more subtle effect."

Prof McGregor said the current clinical trials involving the Nasal spray were being run by the Brain and Mind Institute in Sydney and had another six months to run.

Meanwhile, research is underway in the United States to see if oxytocin can help manage withdrawal symptoms in cannabis addicts.

- AAP

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