Could a hormone dubbed the “cuddle chemical” be the answer to curbing alcoholism? A group of long-tailed research participants may have the answer.
Innovative research on alcoholism treatment comes on the heels of staggering alcohol addiction statistics: Approximately 16 million Americans currently have a diagnosed alcohol use disorder. With such a large part of the population struggling with this disease, scientists and researchers are testing potential new treatment methods for alcohol abuse. Pioneering these scientific breakthroughs for humans are test participants scurrying about on four small paws.
A 2019 study led by teams from the National Institutes of Health and The Scripps Research Institute tested whether doses of oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, could reduce alcohol consumption among alcohol-dependent rats — but did it work? More importantly, would oxytocin therapy work for a human?
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland in the human body. It is well known for its roles in childbirth, uterine contractions, and lactation, and it also plays a significant role in human relationships.
Also a chemical messenger in the brain, oxytocin is nicknamed the “love hormone,” and is involved in interpersonal bonding, trust, recognition, and sexual arousal. Oxytocin plays a role in the regulation of both the stress and reward (pleasure) systems in the brain.
Oxytocin already shows promise as a potential hormone therapy for alcohol addiction. Oxytocin has been shown to decrease withdrawal symptoms, drug-seeking behaviors and drug consumption with several substances, including alcohol. However, the point of the 2019 study was to further understand oxytocin’s effects on alcohol dependence, in particular, to see whether oxytocin could be a viable therapy option for humans who struggle with alcohol addiction.
How Would Oxytocin Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and The Scripps Research Institute hypothesized that oxytocin could normalize the maladaptive changes in the brain that occur with alcohol dependence and thus reduce alcohol use behaviors.
The study results showed that oxytocin discouraged excess drinking in the rats that were dependent on alcohol, and this effect was not seen in the control group of rats (which weren’t dependent on alcohol).
How did this effect happen, though? Researchers noted that the oxytocin blocked the signals of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and prevented alcohol from accessing specific parts of the brain that cause alcohol’s effects of intoxication. Administering the oxytocin blocked GABA signaling in the central nucleus of the amygdala (part of the brain involved in alcohol dependence), which in turn decreased the motivation to drink alcohol.
Researchers believe that this rat study provides evidence that disruptions in the oxytocin system are connected to an alcohol use disorder. Targeting this system with oxytocin therapy could be a novel treatment for people who struggle with alcohol addiction.
Oxytocin Cancels Out the Effects of Intoxication
To understand the rat research results and how oxytocin could treat alcohol abuse, it’s also important to know how alcohol affects the body. Alcohol has depressant and sedative effects, meaning that alcohol intoxication:
- Slows brain functioning and neural activity
- Impairs a person’s judgment
- Lessens inhibitions
- Impairs physical coordination
This last symptom, impaired motor functioning (physical coordination), was the effect studied by a different group of researchers at the University of Sydney. In this 2015 study that paved the way for the American research in 2019, some rats were given no alcohol (the control group), other rats were given alcohol only, and the third group of rats were given oxytocin and then alcohol.
“In the rat equivalent of a sobriety test, the rats given alcohol and oxytocin passed with flying colours, while those given alcohol without oxytocin were seriously impaired,” remarked one of the researchers, Dr. Bowen.
Bowen explained this effect further, saying, “Alcohol impairs your coordination by inhibiting the activity of brain regions that provide fine motor control. Oxytocin prevents this effect to the point where we can’t tell from their behavior that the rats are actually drunk. It’s a truly remarkable effect.”
To understand how oxytocin could treat the effects of alcohol abuse, watch the inebriated lab rats run around after receiving doses of oxytocin.
However, oxytocin therapy for humans has yet to be an established treatment. Although sufficient amounts of oxytocin might make someone appear less drunk than they are, their blood alcohol levels would be the same. Oxytocin would inhibit the intoxicating effects of alcohol, but the alcohol would still be in the body, and wouldn’t leave the system any faster than usual.
Hope is on the horizon, though. According to the researchers, oxytocin can decrease alcohol cravings and alcohol consumption overall. Because oxytocin is already a naturally occurring hormone in the human body, hormone therapy with oxytocin holds promise for future treatment applications among people with alcohol addiction.
How to Know If You Have Alcohol Addiction
It can be difficult to determine where to draw the line between regular alcohol use and alcohol addiction. These alcohol addiction quizzes can help you evaluate your alcohol use to get a better idea of your risk of alcohol addiction. Use the results of these quizzes to inform a conversation with your doctor or a therapist about getting rehab for alcoholism.
- CAGE Alcohol Assessment Quiz
- MAST Alcohol Assessment Quiz
- AUDIT Alcohol Assessment Quiz
- Is My Loved One Addicted to Alcohol?
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Need rehab now for alcohol addiction? Don’t wait to get help. Representatives at The Recovery Village are available to take your call, answer your questions about rehab and can help you find a treatment that works — even if it’s not at our facility. Calling is free and confidential, and there’s no obligation to commit to a program to learn more about rehab. Call today to start a healthier future.
Brendan J. Tunstall, et al. “Oxytocin blocks enhanced motivation for alcohol in alcohol dependence and blocks alcohol effects on GABAergic transmission in the central amygdala.” PLOS Biology, 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” (n.d.) Accessed May 9, 2019. You and Your Hormones. “Oxytocin.” 2015. Accessed May 9, 2019. Science Daily. “Oxytocin could help treat alcohol use disorder.” 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019. Valdez, Ruby. “Cuddle Hormone Oxytocin May Help Treat Alcoholism.” Tech Times, 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019. Medicalxpress. “Sobering effect of the love hormone (w/ Video).” 2015. Accessed May 9, 2019.
Brendan J. Tunstall, et al. “Oxytocin blocks enhanced motivation for alcohol in alcohol dependence and blocks alcohol effects on GABAergic transmission in the central amygdala.” PLOS Biology, 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” (n.d.) Accessed May 9, 2019.
You and Your Hormones. “Oxytocin.” 2015. Accessed May 9, 2019.
Science Daily. “Oxytocin could help treat alcohol use disorder.” 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019.
Valdez, Ruby. “Cuddle Hormone Oxytocin May Help Treat Alcoholism.” Tech Times, 2019. Accessed May 9, 2019.
Medicalxpress. “Sobering effect of the love hormone (w/ Video).” 2015. Accessed May 9, 2019.