Oxytocin reduces cravings for methamphetamine

Reports new study in Biological Psychiatry


Philadelphia, PA, May 31, 2017

Many people have suggested that addiction hijacks the body’s natural drives in the service of compulsive drug use. A new study now suggests that hijacking another natural system in the brain may help overcome drug addiction. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study shows that administration of oxytocin — a naturally occurring molecule well known for its role in social bonding and childbirth — reduces drug-seeking behavior in methamphetamine-addicted rats.

“There are virtually no pharmacotherapeutics for methamphetamine addiction, a chronically relapsing disease that destroys many lives,” said first author Dr. Brittney Cox, now at the University of California Irvine. “Our results are important because they support development of novel, oxytocin-based therapeutics for methamphetamine abuse in humans.”

To show this, Cox and colleagues developed a new method to assess addiction-like behaviors with meth, which could not be studied with previous techniques because of the drug’s long-acting effects. The researchers allowed rats to self-administer meth using a paradigm designed to examine individual differences in the rats’ drug-taking behavior, then tested the effects of oxytocin on their motivation to acquire the drug.

Although oxytocin administered to rats had no effect on the amount of methamphetamine they wanted when it required minimal effort, it strongly decreased the amount of effort rats were willing to exert to obtain the drug they desired, and it decreased relapse to methamphetamine seeking in both males and females.

“Intriguingly, these effects were strongest in animals with the greatest motivation to seek methamphetamine, indicating that oxytocin has potential as a treatment for addiction,” said Cox.

The study also pinpoints the brain region where the oxytocin has its effect. When Cox and colleagues infused oxytocin specifically into the nucleus accumbens, a small brain region implicated in drug addiction, they found that it had the same effects as when they administered it systemically. Infusion of an oxytocin blocker to the brain region blocked the systemic effects of oxytocin, driving home the necessary role of the nucleus accumbens for oxytocin’s effects.

“It will be interesting to learn whether oxytocin has a direct effect on the rewarding effects of methamphetamine or whether these effects are modulated by this hormone’s effects on natural rewards, particularly social activity,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, referring to the mechanism behind the effects that remains to be determined.

The researchers also found that using their new method, measures of motivation accurately predicted relapse behavior, which was not predicted by drug-taking itself when low effort was required. The technique used to assess addiction-like behavior in rats can also be used in humans, so if similar results are found in addicted people, the researchers hope the technique may help identify people most susceptible to addiction and be useful for predicting the efficacy of oxytocin treatment.

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Notes for editors
The article is "Oxytocin Acts in Nucleus Accumbens to Attenuate Methamphetamine Seeking and Demand," by Brittney M. Cox, Brandon S. Bentzley, Helaina Regen-Tuero, Ronald E. See, Carmela M. Reichel, and Gary Aston-Jones (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.11.011). It appears in Biological Psychiatry, volume 81, issue 11 (June 2017), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at Biol.Psych@UTSouthwestern.edu or +1 214 648 0880. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Brittney M. Cox, Ph.D., at brittney.cox@uci.edu.

The authors’ affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 140 Psychiatry titles and 11th out of 256 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2015 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 11.212.

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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office, Biological Psychiatry
+1 214 648 0880
biol.psych@UTSouthwestern.edu