drunken rat

Drunken rats in the attic? No problem, sober them up with some oxytocin

The love hormone, oxytocin, was found to neutralize the motor deficiency effects of alcohol in rats, sobering them up. The researchers involved believe that given enough oxytocin, similar sobering effects might be seen in humans as well.

Cuddling the alcohol

drunken rat

Illustration by EMILY COREN.

Known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is one of the few chemicals made in the brain that’s been fortunate enough to reach pop stardom. You can read about it everywhere from scientific journals to dime a dozen gossip rags. But why are people so fascinated with it? Sex, of course. Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus, where it is either released into the blood via the pituitary gland, or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behavior and physiology. The hormone is significantly involved in social interactions, long-term bonding and floods the brain when men or women have orgasms. However, oxytocin is involved in a slew of other functions, mostly unknown to the general public. For instance, oxytocin levels are high under stressful conditions, such as social isolation and unhappy relationships. It’s also heavily involved in reading other people’s emotions and trust.

“When it is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. But when it comes on board during times of high social stress or pain, it may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts,” says  Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, who directs the University of California, Los Angeles, Social Neuroscience Lab, speaking about a research she and colleagues did in 2008.

Among oxytocin’s many effects you can also add sobering drunken rats to the list. This is according to researchers at University of Sydney and the University of Regensburg who infused oxytocin into the brains of rats which were then given alcohol. Like we all know, alcohol severely affects motor functions, but oxytocin inhibits it from reaching key regions of the brain where it makes its intoxicating magic, like the  delta-subunit GABA-A receptors.

“In the rat equivalent of a sobriety test, the rats given alcohol and oxytocin passed with flying colours, while those given alcohol without oxytocin were seriously impaired,” Dr. Michael T. Bowen said.

“Alcohol impairs your coordination by inhibiting the activity of brain regions that provide fine motor control. Oxytocin prevents this effect to the point where we can’t tell from their behaviour that the rats are actually drunk. It’s a truly remarkable effect,” he added.

Scientists knew about oxytocin and alcohol interaction for some time. In the 1980s, studies found that oxytocin can prevent the development of tolerance to alcohol’s sedative and body temperature reducing effects in rodents, and reduce the severity of alcohol withdrawal. This is the first study, however, that shows oxytocin can cause both immediate and long-lasting inhibition of alcohol consumption in rodents. But can these findings ever be translated to humans? If you ever went on a drunken date, then you know oxytocin does little to help with your case of intoxication. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work per se – it’s just that you never had enough oxytocin to trigger sobering from alcohol.

“The first step will be to ensure we have a method of drug delivery for humans that allows sufficient amounts of oxytocin to reach the brain. If we can do that, we suspect that oxytocin could also leave speech and cognition much less impaired after relatively high levels of alcohol consumption,” Dr Bowen said.

Most likely, a more immediate use for a so-called “sobriety pill” would be in aiding reformed alcoholics since the hormone reduces the severity of alcohol withdrawal and promotes behaviour resistant to addiction and relapse. Even if a miracle sobriety pill were developed – the kind that makes you fresh and ready to go even after a long night at the pub – it would only mask the symptoms. The alcohol is still in your body, so no funny business like driving, else you might wind up with a nasty DUI.

“While oxytocin might reduce your level of intoxication, it won’t actually change your blood alcohol level,” Dr Bowen said. “This is because the oxytocin is preventing the alcohol from accessing the sites in the brain that make you intoxicated, it is not causing the alcohol to leave your system any faster.”

Bowen and colleagues are now trying to figure out in what conditions oxytocin could sober up drunken humans the way it does drunken rats. They’re also investigating the pacifying and anti-aggressive effects of oxytocin. Findings appeared in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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