Can Love Cure Addiction?

5 April 2018
Oxytocin - Lincoln Glasby

Any first-year psych student knows the story. A mouse is placed in a box with two levers. One delivers food on demand—the other, cocaine. Come back five days later and you will find the outcome is always the same: having tasted euphoria, the mouse has starved itself to death.

Today, too many Australians face the mouse’s choice. But surprising new research out of the University of Sydney suggests a cure could be at hand—or between two hands, as it were, in the form of a heartfelt hug.

Nothing makes and breaks addicts quite like opium—the only drug whose withdrawal symptoms can be fatal. Spurred by aggressive Big Pharma–driven over-prescription of powerful painkillers for mundane conditions, opioid dependency is on the rise throughout the West. The scourge strikes across cultural, racial and socioeconomic lines. In Australia, close to 1,500 people lost their lives due to opium last year; in America, the administration was last year forced to declare a national public health emergency. The epidemic has not peaked yet.

There is no silver bullet for breaking the cycle of substance dependence. But Aussie researchers may have just added a powerful new tool to frontline carers’ arsenals. This tool is a drug, in its own way, and a powerful one at that. It brings euphoria—but also long-lasting contentment. It’s organic and side-effect free. Best of all, you don’t have to go to the chemist to get it. All you need is a good, solid, genuine, caring hug.

This wonder drug goes by the name of oxytocin—the ‘love hormone’. Unlike most things in biochemistry, it does just what it says on the tin. Released in abundance during sex, childbirth and frothies with old friends at the Clyde, oxytocin is the miracle adhesive that binds mammal communities together.

But don’t take my word for it. Hug someone (with their consent). Tell me how good it felt—not just at the time, but hours or even days later. That’s oxytocin at work.

Now it seems that oxytocin is good for more than snuggles. Healthy levels of the cuddly hormone may be crucial in supporting long-term recovery from drug addiction and reducing susceptibility in the first place. Most importantly, a short, sharp dose of the good stuff could prevent an imminent relapse—and save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

Cuddles as front-line medicine? Not quite, though that probably wouldn’t hurt. What Iain McGregor and the team at University of Sydney (pfft pfft, spin around, curse, etc.) have in mind is a synthesised love hormone, broken into constituent bits so it can be ingested orally and absorbed into the brain. This is no mean task: the brain employs formidable defences precisely to prevent this sort of tampering. But McGregor reckons they’ve cracked it.

What’s more, they’ve got proof that it works. Well, works in mice. Go figure.

One more word on the topic of mice—and that infamous addiction experiment which slaughtered so many of them. Turns out the inevitable, tragic outcome can be avoided with the addition of a hamster wheel, a dab of colour, and a couple of mousey pals to hang around with.

With drug dependency on the rise among us humans, that is certainly food for thought.

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