Recent findings from a multinational research team indicate that oxytocin, the body’s naturally occurring “love” hormone, may one day serve as the basis of effective treatments for alcoholism and impairing levels of drunkenness. How to treat alcoholism.
Oxytocin is a human hormone known for its ability to encourage social bonding and loving or affectionate interactions. In a study published in January 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Australia and Germany used laboratory experiments on rats to explore this hormone’s potential role in helping people affected by alcohol dependence (alcoholism) or dangerous degrees of alcohol intoxication. These researchers concluded that oxytocin lowers the body’s cravings for alcohol intake and also counteracts the poor muscle coordination that characterizes drunkenness.
All humans produce oxytocin in a structure called the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain near another important structure called the pituitary gland. Some of this hormone flows from the pituitary gland to the bloodstream, while the rest of it passes to other brain areas and triggers a range of changes in mood and behavior. Classic recognized effects of oxytocin include the promotion of motherly behavior toward children (especially newborns), promotion of the bonds that form between people involved in intimate relationships and promotion of the warm feelings that commonly accompany sexual interactions. However, levels of the hormone can also rise sharply in people exposed to stressful circumstances associated with such things as a lack of adequate social support and involvement in a problematic relationship. This means that oxytocin may have a situation-specific effect on human emotions, rather than a blanket effect that appears in the same form in all circumstances.
In the past, a number of researchers have examined the impact of supplemental oxytocin use in human beings and in animals. Doses of the hormone can apparently increase bonding tendencies in low-stress situations. In addition, supplemental oxytocin doses may reduce the impact of damaging stress in situations where an individual lacks adequate social resources.
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Intoxication and Alcoholism
Alcohol intoxication is the state that occurs when a person drinks more alcohol than his or her liver can efficiently eliminate in any given amount of time. Humans actually have only a relatively modest ability to remove alcohol from their systems, and the initial stages of intoxication can appear in a person who consumes little more than one standard serving of alcohol per hour. Clearly impairing drunkenness typically occurs when an individual has a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent (the common criterion for legal intoxication throughout the U.S.). Severely intoxicated people can die from excessive, alcohol-related suppression of their normal central nervous system function (i.e., alcohol poisoning).
Alcoholism is defined by a physical dependence on ongoing alcohol intake. Under terms in common use among American doctors, the symptoms of alcohol dependence form part of the definition of alcohol use disorder, a diagnosable condition that also include symptoms of damaging alcohol abuse not linked to alcohol dependence.
Impact of Oxytocin Use
In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Australia’s University of Sydney and Germany’s University of Regensburg used a series of experiments on rats to assess the impact that oxytocin supplementation may have on the symptoms of alcoholism, as well as on the muscle control problems that appear in alcohol-intoxicated people. In one of the experiments, the researchers introduced extra oxytocin into the brains of a group of rats, then exposed those rats to enough alcohol to induce telltale signs of intoxication. Compared to another group of intoxicated rats that did not receive oxytocin, these animals displayed a clear ability to retain control of their muscle function. In fact, their behaviors roughly mimicked the behaviors of a third group of sober rats that did not receive alcohol or oxytocin.
The researchers also gave supplemental doses of oxytocin to a group of rats affected by alcoholism. After exposure to the hormone, these animals exhibited a significant downturn in their levels of alcohol craving, as well as a downturn in their alcohol intake. These findings mean that supplemental oxytocin may offset one of the key diagnosable symptoms of alcoholism (craving) and produce real-world changes in alcoholics’ dangerous drinking behaviors.
With respect to drunkenness, the study’s authors note that oxytocin does not trigger its effects by lowering the body’s blood-alcohol level. Instead, the hormone apparently blocks alcohol’s typical access to the brain. Extensive research on humans will be needed before anyone receives oxytocin as a standard treatment for alcoholism or severe drunkenness.