Can 'love hormone' oxytocin protect against addiction?

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(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the University of Adelaide say addictive behaviour such as drug and alcohol abuse could be associated with poor development of the so-called "love hormone" system in our bodies during early childhood.

The groundbreaking idea has resulted from a review of worldwide research into , known as the "love hormone" or "bonding drug" because of its important role in enhancing social interactions, maternal behaviour and partnership.

This month's special edition of the international journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior deals with the current state of research linking oxytocin and addiction, and has been guest edited by Dr Femke Buisman-Pijlman (pronounced: FEM-ka BAUS-men PILL-men) from the University of Adelaide's School of Medical Sciences.

Dr Buisman-Pijlman, who has a background in both addiction studies and family studies, says some people's lack of resilience to addictive behaviours may be linked to poor development of their oxytocin systems.

"We know that newborn babies already have levels of oxytocin in their bodies, and this helps to create the all-important bond between a mother and her child. But our oxytocin systems aren't fully developed when we're born – they don't finish developing until the age of three, which means our systems are potentially subject to a range of influences both external and internal," Dr Buisman-Pijlman says.

She says the oxytocin system develops mainly based on experiences.

"The main factors that affect our oxytocin systems are genetics, gender and environment. You can't change the genes you're born with, but environmental factors play a substantial role in the development of the oxytocin system until our systems are fully developed," Dr Buisman-Pijlman says.

"Previous research has shown that there is a high degree of variability in people's . We're interested in how and why people have such differences in oxytocin, and what we can do about it to have a beneficial impact on people's health and wellbeing," she says.

She says studies show that some risk factors for drug addiction already exist at four years of age. "And because the hardware of the oxytocin system finishes developing in our bodies at around age three, this could be a critical window to study. Oxytocin can reduce the pleasure of drugs and feeling of stress, but only if the system develops well."

Her theory is that adversity in early life is key to the impaired development of the oxytocin system. "This adversity could take the form of a difficult birth, disturbed bonding or abuse, deprivation, or severe infection, to name just a few factors," Dr Buisman-Pijlman says.

"Understanding what occurs with the oxytocin system during the first few years of life could help us to unravel this aspect of and use that knowledge for treatment and prevention."

Interesting theory

My nephew and niece -- not biologically related -- were both adopted at age three from different abusive backgrounds. My nephew's abuse before age three was known by the caseworkers to be worse than my nieces -- the caseworkers knew their life situation well, but still, both were shoved from foster home to foster home before age three, just as they would start to bond with one mother figure, they were handed off to a new stranger.

Yet, my nephew bonded and married and is still madly in love with his wife after many years, and the day his son was born, he called his mother from the hospital and told her that he had no idea anyone could love someone that much (meaning how much he loved his newborn son). He continues to be a devoted dad who adores his family and remains in a fantastic family unit.

She on the other hand, has alcoholism and while occasionally has a boyfriend, can't stay with anyone for long, and has no desire to ever be a mother -- even though she's entering the age where it's almost too late biologically for her to make that choice anyway.

Both were raised the same after adoption, both had abuse before adoption but his was known to be more abusive and he had way more switches between foster homes than she did.

This is just one story I was close to first-hand, but it makes me think there's something biological playing along with bonding outcomes besides just how they're raised. I had another niece who had two sisters and one brother. She was the third born. All the other siblings were raised, of course, in the same intact family and were able to bond and enjoy healthy lives, but she could not bond for some reason. Had 3 kids from 3 different dads and abandoned them all.

Research on

(sexually) abused children shows that females seem to be more scarred by the experience than males. Maybe it's true of all kinds of abuse. Very interesting. Maybe females who get their bonding instincts screwed up really should stay out of the baby business...and that's one way biology solves the problem.


Yep. and maybe there would be more women openly interested in healing approaches to relating too!

That would be good for me! Smile

PS: I'm wondering about the study you mention about girls being more heavily affected by childhood sexual abuse than boys. There are many forms of sexual abuse and the ones that are mostly commonly reported in male survivors are physically obvious and perpetrated by men. This is easily seen as out of line, dysfunctional and socially unacceptable. Abuse by men against girls is closer to what is accepted as normal in our culture (and hence harder to heal). The subtler forms are often under-reported and much harder to heal. Cases where the perpetrator is a woman are also much harder to heal. I'm wondering if they took into account these various factors.


Hi Marnia,

I did a quick read of the wikipedia page and see some problems with it already. It seems that they were relying primarily on self-report by college age students.

There is a fairly widespread understanding in the sexual abuse healing field that memories of abuse can be buried for long periods of time. Sometimes the memories aren't associated with abuse until later in life. It seems that it takes time for a person to feel safe enough (and have enough distance from family) to fully understand that what happened was hurtful. In my case, that didn't happen until I was 39 well after I had left my university days behind. If I had been asked about being exposed to sexualized behaviour from parents in my youth while I was in college, I might not have even mentioned it. At the time I had no idea of the effect it would eventually have on me. That didn't happen until I was out of college and trying to establish a marriage.

As for minimizing the effect it has on people. I wonder how many suicide victims they interviewed! Smile I know of at least one man who killed himself after having experienced a family dynamic that was remarkably similar to my own. I've struggled with strong suicidal impulses many times.

The enthusiasm of the pedophile community for these studies is disturbing to me. Kids shouldn't have their world sexualized until more basic needs are fully met, they are ready to explore sexuality and are interested in exploring it (on their own or with the support of others of their choice). This rarely occurs before the age of 12 or 14 in a healthy child in a healthy family. Otherwise, it is likely in my mind that adult needs are being satisfied at the expense of the child's needs.

I wish more attention was put into sexual healing at the adult level. This piece seems to be missing to a very large degree in our culture. You are one of the very rare sources that addresses this direction. I think I've heard you mention before that sexologists don't generally agree with your position. I'm not convinced that they are interested in harmony and healing. They, like many scientists, are often swayed by politics and funding sources.

Thanks for the link.



That's interesting because

that's the same argument I made on Sexnet, an academic sexology listserve that touts the Rind study as proof that CSA isn't as harmful as it's claimed to be.

They came back with another Rind meta study of adults (not college-age folks) from various countries supporting their thesis. I bet it's cited somewhere in that Wiki article. If not, I can dig for it.

Adult study

Hi Marnia,

I couldn't find anything directly related to the meta study of adults but in looking into the wikipedia article more deeply I realize that they might have a point, but the dangers of it being misused are great.

It hinges on the definition of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA): "CSA was defined as "a sexual interaction involving either physical contact or no contact (e.g., exhibitionism) between either a child or adolescent and someone significantly older, or between two peers who are children or adolescents when coercion is used." "Child" was sometimes defined, not biologically, but as underaged or as a minor under the legal age of consent."

This definition could include something as innocuous as an adult streaker being seen on a soccer field by a child in the stands or on TV. The effect of that "abuse" could easily be negligible.

They concluded that it was other variables that were more responsible for the harm: "Intense, pervasive harm and long-term maladjustment were due to confounding variables in most studies rather than to the sexual abuse itself (though exceptions were noted for abuse accompanied by force or incest)."

I'm imagining here that "force" and "incest" are considered among the compounding variables, although I'm not exactly sure that's what they mean. I agree with that. It's not so much sex acts that harm, it's the energy that's coming through a sex act. One of the problems with this is that its almost impossible to suggest that children can give meaningful consent. It also would make sense that in most cases women would be more deeply affected since they are generally in positions of less social power than men and social power is one of the confounding variables. It could also mean that a boy abused by his mother could be far more deeply affected than a girl by a total stranger.

There has often been confusion between sex and sexual abuse. The best illustration of that problem that I've heard is: Taking a frying pan and hitting someone over the head with it is to "cooking" what sexual abuse is to "sex".

Defining abuse is really tricky. It's very subjective. The word, in my understanding, comes from "a" (to not) and "use". Now what would an adult-child relationship be used for? Not that long ago children were the property of the male parent to be used in any way he saw fit. From that definition there is no such thing as abuse unless the male parent's wishes were denied. If you look into Alice Miller's writings, she would suggest that one of the ways to deal with childhood abuse (in an adult) is to pass it on to your kids (the other two ways are self destruction and socio-pathology). That perspective draws into question the parenting paradigm of our culture completely. If you define the parent-child relationship as to serve the maximal flowering of the child's potential, then people shouldn't have kids until they've healed everything that prevented them from reaching their own maximal potential in their childhood. Defining that potential can be pretty tricky too.

It's a mess but I think there is far more denial of the harm that can be done through sexual acts than there is awareness of it. I use the word to help me heal. It can limit too because someone who has been abused can get attached to the victim identity and get stuck there. That's why I oscillate between this site which is focused on adult sexual health (the ultimate prevention of childhood sexual trauma) and MaleSurvivor (which is much more aware of the effects of abuse).

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Rind study. I can see why it is so controversial. I think the root of the problem is that it is very difficult to study love scientifically. It's more the domain of the mystics. The reason behind this is that love joins, science (analysis) splits.

Yes, definition games can be played...and are played

This is the study I was sent when I tried to discuss this on a sexology listserve:

"A Meta-Analytic Review of Findings from National Samples on
Psychological Correlates of Child Sexual Abuse"

In response to the availability of a growing literature on the psychological correlates of
child sexual abuse (CSA), numerous researchers have conducted literature reviews of
these correlates. These reviewers have generally reported that CSA is associated with a
wide variety of adjustment problems, and many have additionally implied or concluded
that, in the population of persons with CSA experiences, (a) CSA causes psychological
harm, (b) this harm is pervasive, (c) this harm is intense, and (d) boys and girls
experience CSA equivalently. However, with few exceptions, these reviewers have
included in their reviews mostly studies using clinical and legal samples; these samples
cannot be assumed to be representative of the general population. To evaluate the
implications and conclusions of these reviewers, we conducted a literature review of
seven studies using national probability samples, which are more appropriate for making
population inferences. We found that, contrary to the implications and conclusions

contained in previous literature reviews that were focused on biased samples, in the
general population, CSA is not associated with pervasive harm and that harm, when it
occurs, is not typically intense. Further, CSA experiences for males and females are not
equivalent; a substantially lower proportion of males reports negative effects. Finally, we
found that conclusions about a causal link between CSA and later psychological
maladjustment in the general population cannot safely be made because of the reliable
presence of confounding variables. We concluded by cautioning that analysis at the
population level does not characterize individual eases: When CSA is accompanied by
factors such as force or close familial ties, it has the potential to produce significant harm.


It's consistent with your thoughts in that force and close familial ties cause more harm, but that gets lost in the press headlines. I can email you the entire study if you like.

Thanks Marnia!


The press has a habit of compressing information into bites that are so small as to be no longer representative at all.

I'm going to assume that their definiton of CSA is siimilar to the wikipedia report on the RInd study. We could easily run into the same problems.

I'm still wondering about the conclusion that males report a lower frequency of negative effects. In our culture it is very taboo for men to express any kind of hurt. This is reflected in the suicide stats: men do it more often, women threaten it more often. It is also more acceptable for women to embrace a victim role (so that some mythical male hero can come to her rescue). Men are more often reported as perpetrators of sexual violence. Could male violence be an (under-reported) symptom of childhood sexual trauma? I wonder if they considered that as a symptom of trauma or not?

There are so many variables in CSA it's kind of overwhelming. What I've noticed is that the subtler the abuse, the closer the ties to the parties involved, the degree of dependency of the child on the perpetrator, and the more hidden (i.e. framed as "education" or "for your own good"), and the closer to cultural norms, the more deeply the child is harmed. These are also the hardest to see and the least likely to be reported. As an example of this, in a film I saw about the sexual abuse of men I noticed that not one man reported abuse by a female. I asked the director about this and she said that none of the 100 men she interviewed mentioned it. If you look in the literature, this doesn't make sense. It clearly happens, but it is under-reported and very hard to heal.

People generally view CSA as physically violent and close to what is culturally accepted in male female relations (male perpetrator-female victim). I haven't seen this to be so true. There is a wide variety of ways that kids can be harmed sexually and the most obvious and the most culturally deviant, in my understanding and experience, are often (but not always) less harmful.

Thanks for writing.