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Oxytocin a potential treatment for addiction and comorbid mood disorders

April 21, 2017
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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New research suggests there is a potential for the neuropeptide oxytocin, traditionally known for playing a key role in social reward and stress regulation, to be used in treatment for opioid addiction and comorbid mood disorders, as well as the prevention of relapse.

The finding was part of a research review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

“Oxytocin intranasal spray may have the potential to be used as an ad hoc medication with current pharmacotherapy (buprenorphine or methadone) as an aid to reduce the urges that opioid-dependent individuals have to use heroin (triggered by drug associated cues or stress per se) while on substitution maintenance therapy,” Alexis Bailey, BSc, PhD, one of the review’s authors, told Addiction Professional by email.

Bailey is a senior lecturer in neuropharmacology at the Institute of Medical & Biomedical Education at St. George’s University of London.

Prolonged substance abuse has been shown to possibly lead to social isolation and poor decision making at the expense of being compulsively preoccupied with the drug. Impaired social behavior also has been linked previously to an increased likelihood to relapse after long-term abstinence.

Considering that, according to previous research, antidepressants and current addiction pharmacotherapies have shown limited efficacy and are frequently accompanied by side effects in people suffering from this comorbidity, Bailey and his co-authors reason that understanding the neurobiological mechanisms underlying comorbid depression and addiction disorders will have important therapeutic implications in improving mental healthcare.

In reviewing previously published literature, the findings in the paper by Bailey and colleagues state that oxytocin plays “unambiguously a key role in mediating several opioid addiction-related behavioral and neurochemical processes and can be considered a promising target for the treatment of opioid dependence and emotional impairment comorbidity.”

A key factor separating oxytocin from some of the other medications currently available for the treatment of opioid dependence and emotional impairment comorbidity is that it has not shown abuse or addiction potential. Still, the report cautions, future clinical studies are needed to assess the effects of oxytocin-based pharmacotherapies on the different stages of opioid addiction and to determine dosages that would minimize potential side effects while remaining effective in their purpose.

“It’s very early and there is need for randomized clinical trials to test its potential, but I visualize oxytocin intranasal spray to be used in the same way that asthmatics use their inhaler when they feel an asthmatic attack is imminent,” Bailey says.