‘Love Hormone’ Shows Promise for Treating Alcohol Addiction

A new study suggests that oxytocin, the “love hormone,” may be effective at reducing the intoxication associated with drinking. Alcohol leads to about 3 million deaths worldwide each year, accounting for almost 6 percent of all deaths. The potential for a treatment for alcohol addiction in terms of reducing lives lost—not to mention protecting against the multitude of other negative consequences of alcoholism—is massive, and the researchers who worked on the new study believe that may be possible, thanks to the “love hormone.” One day, there may be a pill that reduces the desire to drink, the effects of alcohol and the impacts of the potentially lethal process of withdrawal.

Oxytocin and Alcoholism

Oxytocin is called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone,” and it’s associated with pro-social feelings and developing long-term bonds. Its interaction with alcohol was discovered in the 1980s, when it was shown that the chemical prevents the development of the sedative effects of alcohol in rats, as well as its tendency to reduce body temperature. Additionally, these same tests indicated that it can also reduce the severity of withdrawal from alcohol, which can be fatal in extreme cases.

Further research has shown that oxytocin reduces alcohol consumption in rats, and when the dose is repeated, the substance causes addiction-resistant behavior in the rodents, such as increased sociability and reduced anxiety. In a small pilot trial in humans, nasal oxytocin doses reduced cravings and lessened the severity of withdrawal. In short, oxytocin appears to reduce the effects of alcohol consumption and withdrawal, as well as reduce the urge to drink. However, these findings are largely from rat research, so while they’re very promising, they’d require further confirmation in humans before a treatment could move ahead.

Does Oxytocin Impact Alcohol Intoxication?

The researchers set out to determine whether oxytocin had any impact on intoxication itself by conducting an experiment on rats. The researchers injected oxytocin directly into the brains of rats and then gave them a dose of alcohol sufficient to make them intoxicated. These rats were then compared to rats that had only consumed alcohol and to rats that were completely sober.

The basic findings involved behavioral comparisons between these groups of rats—effectively conducting the rodent equivalent of a field sobriety test. The results are striking, showing that the rats given oxytocin alongside alcohol behaved virtually identically to those that were sober, while the intoxicated rats showed a clear lack of coordination.

The researchers dug a little deeper to determine what was going on in the rodents’ brains and found that oxytocin blocks alcohol from acting at the delta subunit-containing GABA-A receptors, which are central to the process of intoxication. The researcher said this was unexpected because existing knowledge suggested that oxytocin didn’t act at these receptors. These same receptors are central to the process of addiction and tolerance to alcohol, and the new results could therefore explain previous findings relating to the hormone’s effect on alcoholism.

Researcher Michael Bowen clarifies that, “while oxytocin might reduce your level of intoxication, it will not actually change your blood-alcohol level.” In other words, if you have a blood-alcohol content of over 0.08 percent—the legal limit for driving—taking oxytocin won’t make you safe to drive home. If you’re caught, you’ll still be over the limit based on breath and blood tests, even if you feel and perhaps appear to be more sober.

Stage Set for ‘Sobriety Pill’?

The wide-ranging effects of oxytocin on alcohol provide hope for a treatment for alcoholism: the hormone reduces the likelihood of drinking, reduces the effects of drinking and helps people tolerate the unpleasant period of withdrawal. However, the majority of the findings have been in rodents. Not only does this mean they’ve been observed in a different species, but also that we can be a lot more direct when dosing rats than we could when dosing people. Whereas the rats in the studies had oxytocin injected into their brains, oxytocin given to humans is typically in the form of a nasal spray, which may not be a particularly effective strategy. 

If the effect from this study is observed in humans, the “sobriety pill”—or, more likely, the “sobriety nasal spray”—could well be a real innovation. As well as reducing the impact of withdrawal, the desire to drink and signs of intoxication like poor motor coordination and slurred speech, it is also expected to reduce the aggression sometimes observed in drinkers. After all, it is the “love” hormone.

Promising Find, but No Magic Bullet

As always, a medicine designed to treat addiction has limitations. Largely, these are related to the psychological factors underpinning addiction. Say a hypothetical alcoholic was taking oxytocin—even ignoring the fact he’d have to choose to continue doing so—what would stop him from switching to a different drug? Oxytocin stops alcohol from being appealing but does nothing for cocaine, opiates, marijuana or any of the multitude of substances (or non-substances) people can abuse. Without addressing our hypothetical alcoholic’s underlying issues—be they low self-esteem, depression, poor ability to cope with stress or something else—the core drive pushing him to abuse substances will still be there. There are no magic bullets. The oxytocin treatment could be a valuable addition to conventional treatment, but it couldn’t take its role entirely.

Posted on March 21st, 2015

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