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Hugs not Drugs: Revolutionising the treatment of addiction

7 March 2017
Turning on the love hormone for a solution to serious substance-use disorders

Dr Michael Bowen from the School of Psychology provides a glimpse into his breakthrough solution to the burden of addiction at his upcoming Sydney Science Forum.

Dr Michael Bowen

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder common across society, and the damaging effects of substance abuse on pathways in the brain can mean addicts are not getting a much needed release of oxytocin from social connections that could be crucial to their recovery.

On Wednesday 22 March, Dr Michael Bowen, a psychopharmacologist from the School of Psychology will delve into the mammalian brain to discuss his discovery and development of a treatment for addiction that targets the brain’s oxytocin system.

Our synthetic oxytocin compound causes massive activation of the brain’s natural oxytocin system and is even more effective than oxytocin in our addiction models. It is way more effective at activating oxytocin neurons in the brain than oxytocin itself!
Dr Michael Bowen

“We refer to oxytocin as the ‘love hormone’. It works in sync with dopamine, and is released to help us form strong social bonds – the sorts of bonds that seem enormously important in supporting long-term sobriety,” said Dr Bowen.

“But excessive use of addictive substances such as alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin can damage parts of the brain that allow people to engage in social behaviour. At this point, the hugs don’t work.

Stimulating the brain’s oxytocin system might help those suffering from a substance-use disorder to reengage with the social world and help them overcome addiction.

Oxytocin inhibits alcohol and other drugs from activating the dopamine reward system, so the pleasurable reward is minimal, and interest in the substance is decreased. In rodent tests where animals receive doses of oxytocin, they show a massive reduction in their interest in addictive substances.

Negative behaviours associated with withdrawal, and long-term consequences of substance abuse, such as anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, are all reduced by administering oxytocin. The compound is also able to powerfully prevent the three main types of relapse in animal models. Targeting the brain oxytocin system may be an effective treatment for all stages of the addiction cycle.

The catch is that oxytocin itself doesn’t make a great treatment for humans. It can’t be taken in pill form as it is broken down in the gut. If administered with a nasal spray, only a small amount gets into the brain, and the oxytocin that does reach the brain only hangs around for a matter of minutes, not the hours ideal for an addiction treatment. We sidestep these issues in animal models by administering oxytocin straight into the brain.

For humans, we have invented a compound that can be taken orally, gets into the brain very easily, and stays there much longer than oxytocin,” said Dr Michael Bowen.

“Our synthetic oxytocin compound causes massive activation of the brain’s natural oxytocin system and is even more effective than oxytocin in our addiction models. It is way more effective at activating oxytocin neurons in the brain than oxytocin itself!”

Clinical trials to test the compound’s safety and effectiveness in humans begin soon.

Register now to hear the full story of Dr Bowen’s research in returning some effective hugs to our community at the first Sydney Science Forum for 2017, Hugs not Drugs: Revolutionising the treatment of addiction, Wednesday 22 March 2017.

Alarming figures surround addiction in our community

  • 40 to 60 percent of people will relapse within one year of entering a period of sobriety.
  • The World Health Organisation attributes 15 percent of all deaths worldwide each year to the harmful use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances.
  • One quarter of deaths among males aged 20 to 39 years are alcohol-related.
  • Half of all crimes in Australia are attributed to drugs and alcohol.
  • Alcohol is involved in 73 percent of partner physical assaults in Australia.
  • The total cost of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances to Australian society is about $55 billion each year. To put that in perspective, the total federal health budget for 2016/17 is around $70 billion.
A range of tablets spilled across a tabletop

Hugs not Drugs: Revolutionising the treatment of addiction

In the first Sydney Science Forum of 2017, Dr Michael Bowen from the School of Psychology provides a glimpse into his breakthrough solution to the burden of addiction.

Wednesday 22 March 2017
5.45pm - 7pm
Eastern Ave Auditorium, Camperdown Campus
Free, registration requested
Register now

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