A new study showed how the love hormone could combat alcoholism and drug addiction. It could satisfy the pathways in the brain to relieve substance addiction.
The application of the love hormone oxytocin in countering alcoholism and opioid addiction was led by the University of Sydney, an Australian public research university. Researchers found that oxytocin could take up the brain pathways occupied by alcohol. Through this, an alcoholic person would experience fewer withdrawal symptoms. Some of the alcohol pathways in the brain could also be occupied by opioids, which made the oxytocin approach viable for drug addiction. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Alcohol Consumption and Drug Overdose
Alcoholic beverages are drinks that contain chemicals capable of altering the perception of the human brain. If taken in moderation, these beverages can help relax someone from stress. This is why alcohols are typically served on specific occasions to uplift the spirit. But consistent, excessive consumption can deal significant damage to internal organs, particularly the brain and the liver. And once the person wants to stop, they have to deal with an extra problem: withdrawal symptoms.
Opioids are powerful painkillers only prescribed to those with chronic, debilitating pain-related illnesses. These drugs require prescriptions because of a major risk: opioid addiction. Over time, the patient can develop tolerance to opioids and causes them to feel physical pain as if they have never taken the drugs. The doctor may be forced to up the dosage but may also prescribe a different painkiller to prevent addiction.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, there were changes in the alcohol consumption of various countries in 2017. In a study published in The Lancet, Vietnam had the highest alcohol consumption of 8.9 average annual liters of alcohol consumed per person in 2017. That represented a change of 89.4% compared to the country's consumption in 2010. India was second at 5.9 average annual liters and a change of 37.2% from 2010. Japan was third at 7.9 average annual liters and a change of 11.3% from 2010.
The five countries with reduced alcohol consumption were Spain at -0.5%, Russia at -3.5%, the UK at -7.3%, Canada at -10.8%, and Australia at -14.4%. However, the average annual liters consumed per person were 10 for Spain, 12.3 for Russia, 11.4 for the UK, 9.1 for Canada, and 10.7 for Australia. The average annual liters might be greater than the Asian countries mentioned, but those were lower than records in 2010.
Meanwhile, emergency visits due to nonfatal overdose in the US in 2017 were alarming among teens and adults. The rates were 152.3 per 100,000 people for aged 14 years and younger, 476.4 for aged 15 to 19 years, 427.1 for aged 20 to 24 years, 447.7 for aged 25 to 34 years, 346.4 for aged 35 to 44 years, 300.2 for aged 45 to 54 years, 258.5 for aged 55 to 64 years, and 195 for aged 65 years and older.
Oxytocin for Alcohol and Opioid Addiction
In Australia, approximately 5,797 people aged 15 and older died from alcohol-related causes in 2015. Between 2012 and 2013, alcohol-related hospitalizations in the country were more than 144,000 cases or 400 people per day. These figures showed how serious alcohol addiction is and how much damage it can cause among families. So, Michael Bowen, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, continued his research on what could help people struggling in alcoholism.
"Addiction causes changes in the brain that make it harder and harder for someone to stop. What we now know about the addicted brain tells us there could be a medicinal way of managing addiction. That's what we're working on," explained Bowen, who is also the first author of the study.
To prevent alcoholism in destroying personal and professional lives, two approaches can be explored. First, stimulating the brain's social pathways to divert the person's focus from addictive substances to positive social engagement. And second, decrease the trauma from withdrawal symptoms to motivate the person to give up their addiction. The more intense the withdrawal is, the more reluctant the person is to stick to treatments.
In this study, Bowen and colleagues applied oxytocin, the love hormone, to fight alcoholism and mitigate withdrawal symptoms. They used rat models to test the hormone's capabilities. Rats were given a dose of oxytocin. Next, rats were given alcohol. Then, rates were tested for the effects of oxytocin on the consumed alcohol. Test results showed that oxytocin could block the pathways of alcohol, which reduced intoxication. Also, the consumption of alcohol was lower than expected in rats that were given first with oxytocin.
The love hormone appears to take over the brain pathways related to alcohol rewarding and motivating effects. During alcohol consumption, the brain responds to the rewards from alcohol. This motivates the person to drink more to obtain additional rewards, which creates the cycle of alcoholism. Oxytocin can occupy the pathways since it is correlated to bonding and a sense of belonging, such as family togetherness, friendship, and mother-child bond.
Despite the promising effect of oxytocin, there is a major challenge in administering it to people. The most convenient drug delivery, oral administration, does not work with oxytocin. Either in liquid or solid form, oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract. Sublingual or under the tongue is possible but the hormone will be poorly absorbed. Nasal administration has been formulated yet the effects are short-lived. Thus, injection-based is typically used in certain situations like helping a pregnant woman get through her labor.
Bowen and colleagues collaborated with other groups to investigate different oxytocin forms. While investigating for the best administration route of oxytocin, Bowen is leading a novel treatment for opioid addiction. It is under development but preliminary findings showed its efficacy against a variety of substance use disorders. It is unknown if the technology used to create that treatment be applied or modified to produce an optimal drug form for therapeutic oxytocin.