Hugs not drugs: the USyd researchers developing addiction treatment

Chemicals and creativity collide in cutting edge new research

Last Wednesday, Dr Michael Bowen of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney presented “Hugs not Drugs; Revolutionising the Treatment of Addiction”, as part of the Sydney Science Forum public lecture series. Dr Bowen, sporting rainbow stripped socks and an impressive introduction by the Dean of Science, is involved in the development of treatment for substance addictions.

Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disorder that results from addictive substances dominating reward pathways in the brain. This has the effect of deregulating stress-handling pathways, and suppressing the activity of behavioural regulation pathways, which are designed to resist desire.

“We have a problem with addictive drugs,” Bowen warns. According to the World Health Organisation, 15% of all deaths worldwide each year can be attributed to harmful use of alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs. With addiction causing such harm, you might expect us to have a myriad of effective recovery methods.

“Unfortunately, that is simply not the case,” says Bowen. While Australia does have available treatments for addiction, they are both ineffective and inaccessible. The best treatments – “behavioural therapies” like support groups – are designed to turn the individual’s mind towards social interaction and away from the addictive substance. It is the success of these therapies that eventually led psychologists to Bowen’s research into that special chemical called Oxytocin.

Oxytocin, known as the “Cuddle Chemical”, occurs naturally in all mammal brains. It plays a core role in focusing us on the social world, and the brain pathways involved in the oxytocin system heavily overlap with those that underlie addiction. But where addiction leads to impaired function of these brain systems, oxytocin has the opposite effect, suggesting the potential of the oxytocin system as a target for addiction treatment.

Here, Bowen presents the results of treating substance-abuse disorder in lab rats with oxytocin. The research shows huge decreases of alcohol consumption in alcohol-addicted rats that have been treated with oxytocin. These same results can be repeated with other addictive substances, including opioids and stimulant drugs.

Addictive substances work in part by stimulating the brain’s reward centre through the release of dopamine. Oxytocin stops these substances from stimulating this reward centre, thus suppressing the accompanying cravings. Oxytocin can also reverse negative long-term consequences of addiction which hinder sobriety – anxiety, depression, social isolation – making it less likely for recovering addicts to relapse.

It all sounds too good to be true. And it is… sort of. Oxytocin cannot be administered orally, and in clinical trials where the drug is administered intranasal, the effects were modest at best (most likely due to the small amount of the drug that actually reaches the brain).

The solution, Bowen tells us, is a synthetic compound currently in development at USyd. SOC-1 (or Synthetic Oxytocin-like Compound 1) is a pill that works by activating oxytocin neurons in the brain. In fact, the compound has more of an effect than natural oxytocin –activating up to 33% of neurons while oxytocin itself activates only 13.5%.

If all goes well, it will still be six to eight years before SOC-1 is available on the pharmaceutical market. With any luck, in a decade’s time, we will look back at the days when all we could offer recovering addicts were replacement drugs or support groups, and marvel at how far we’ve come.