Could This ‘Love Hormone’ Treat Drug Addiction?


Love isn’t just a feeling — it’s also the emotion that spikes extra levels of oxytocin, also known as ‘the love hormone.’ It’s this hormone that could help treat drug addicts and keep them from relapse.

Researchers from St. George’s, University of London reviewed studies about oxytocin’s effects on drug addiction. Lead author of the study, Alexis Bailey, said oxytocin has similar effects to social support systems already in place for addicts.

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“Given the benefits that social support programs 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,” Bailey told Science Daily. “Since the evidence is so clear, the need for clinical studies looking into this is obvious.”

Oxytocin plays a key role in fulfilling social rewards and regulating stress, and there has been significant interest in the role of the hormone in addiction, the authors wrote. Oxytocin works to mediate interactions with dopamine pathways in the brain. Dopamine works as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

The hormone was able to modulate short- and long-term opioid tolerance, specifically acting against heroin tolerance. In addition, oxytocin was suggested to have the ability to lessen the physical and emotional symptoms of opioid abstinence in some studies, the authors said.

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As for ongoing clinical trials, there’s still work to be done, but those in progress show promising signs, the authors said.

“With regards to opioid addiction, there have been only two clinical studies to-date that assessed the effects of [oxytocin] on opioid-dependent patients,” the authors wrote. “The main outcome of both studies demonstrates a safe and good tolerability profile of [oxytocin] administration in opioid-dependent individuals, even after repeated administration for two weeks.”

Oxytocin was beneficial in that the hormone itself didn’t show any abuse or addiction potential. The hormone is also different in that it has positive social effects, the authors said.

“[Oxytocin] and social support have been shown to interact and exert a stress-buffering effect following a psychosocial stress challenge in humans,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, there is clinical evidence for a beneficial role of [oxytocin] in the treatment of other disorders characterized by social cognitive impairment including autistic spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.”

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The researchers said while oxytocin has benefits, more research is needed to determine dosage issues. Chronic, low doses of the hormone prevented stress-induced anxiety, but high doses were found to worsen the treatment prognosis of the addicts.

“Preclinical and clinical evidence clearly indicates the potential of OT as an effective next-generation treatment…for opioid addiction and comorbid mood disorders, as well as prevention of relapse,” the authors wrote in conclusion. “Therefore, there is a need for future clinical studies to directly assess the effect of [oxytocin]-based therapies on the different stages of opioid addiction and to determine doses that would avoid any detrimental side effects.”

The study was published in the British Journal of Pharmacology.