Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone, or endogenous peptide, associated with maternal bonding, lactation and human intimacy. Because of its positive effect on social behavior in humans, it has been studied for its psychotherapeutic potential, particularly among those suffering from addictive disease. Recently Cox and colleagues (2016) studied the effect of oxytocin on drug seeking behavior in rats addicted to methamphetamine. Using a behavioral-economic research design, similar to those used in research that predicted drug desire and relapse in humans, the researchers found that oxytocin was associated with predicting drug seeking and relapse behavior in rodents.

The difference in methodology (rodents versus humans) allowed researchers to determine where the therapeutic benefits occur. The effects in rodents were mediated by actions within the nucleus accumbens, which is where many of the rewarding effects psycho-stimulants and other intoxicants occur in humans.

Why Does This Matter?

Much of the focus of drug-induced changes in addiction or medication development has been on dopamine. Rarely do we hear about hormone changes. We have heard that drugs of abuse may interfere with maternal-child bonding and parenting. This work on oxytocin may allow us to study these drug-related behavioral changes. Additionally, the potential for any additions to the current arsenal of treatment modalities for methamphetamine addiction is good news, because the treatment outcome data for methamphetamine addiction is dismal. The relapse rate among meth addicts is more common than not, in part because both structural and functional changes in the brain caused by chronic use may never substantially improve. As a result, intense cravings, hallucinations, and delusions often reappear and may continue for months and even years.

Given that most patients in treatment for meth addiction relapse, need for novel and more effective treatments has never been higher.