They call it the “love hormone.” It’s responsible for milk production during lactation. Scientists have found that it can both facilitate trust and reduce fear. It even seems to be released when two people cuddle. But can oxytocin contain the key to curing alcohol dependence?
A recent study conducted by a team of Australian and German scientists suggests just that. Male rats that were given an injection of oxytocin prior to ethanol had significantly less motor impairment than their oxytocin-free counterparts. These rats were placed in new environments, dangled from upside down cage tops, and flipped onto their backs. Rats that were exposed to alcohol but not oxytocin remained largely immobile in the new environments, struggled to maintain their grips on the cage tops, and had difficulties correcting themselves after being flipped over. Rats that were given oxytocin prior to alcohol, however, performed nearly as well as the sober rats.
When the researchers examined these mechanisms at a cellular level, they found that oxytocin appeared to act directly on GABA receptors. GABA, a neurotransmitter that causes inhibition in the brain, is theorized to be the neurotransmitter responsible for alcohol intoxication. By interacting with these receptors, oxytocin may have the potential to block the effects of alcohol on GABA. Better still, oxytocin appears to block alcohol but not other chemicals that result in an increase in GABA. This specificity suggests that oxytocin may be able to block alcohol without dampening GABA elsewhere in the brain, a dangerous side effect that could potentially result in seizures due to insufficient inhibition.
Can oxytocin help people who are suffering from alcohol dependence? Current studies look promising, but more research is essential before any new therapies are developed. In the meantime, here are multiple drug based therapies designed to reduce craving and help alcohol cessation:
Topamax (topiramate): Although Topamax is marked as an anticonvulsant, doctors have found that it also helps people who are struggling with alcohol dependence. Researchers have proposed that Topamax blocks alcohol cravings by decreasing dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, making alcohol less pleasurable. Topamax also increases the release of GABA, which may reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Topamax has several potential side effects, however, ranging from dizziness to memory problems.
Antabuse (disulfiram): Antabuse is the classic alcohol cessation drug. Rather than reduce cravings, it interrupts the metabolism of alcohol. Alcohol is typically broken down in two steps. First, alcohol dehydrogenase breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. Acetaldehyde is then broken down by aldehyde dehydrogenase into harmless acetate. Antabuse prevents aldehyde dehydrogenase from functioning, resulting in a buildup of the acetaldehyde and a condition known as acetaldehyde syndrome. This syndrome can produce symptoms such as nausea, breathing difficulties and hypotension, making drinking an unpleasant and sickening experience. Understandably, patient compliance can be an issue.
Revia (naltrexone): Like Topamax, Revia reduces alcohol craving and works to prevent relapse. Vivitrol is theorized to work by blocking opioid receptors in the brain and ultimately impacting the amount of pleasure experienced from alcohol. Pharmacogenetics, the study of genetic differences in drug metabolic pathways, has illuminated a gene that appears in people who respond particularly well to Revia. A greater understanding of the genetic characteristics that predict success in other treatments will be essential in formulating new therapies.
Regardless of whether oxytocin’s impressive effects can influence both love and alcohol treatment, researchers will continue to develop therapies that target the addicted brain. After all, alcohol dependence is a brain disease and the brain should be addressed, at least in part. A greater understanding of precisely how alcohol functions – as well as what keeps it from functioning – will guide future efforts in treating alcohol dependence.
Sovereign Health Group employs a wide variety of treatment plans customized for each individual. Sovereign also understands that while some addicts may require medication, others may not. Sovereign will work with each patient to find a treatment that best suits him or her. For further questions, please call 866-554-5504.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer