This post was originally published on March 16, 2015.
If you aren’t familiar with oxytocin, it’s what scientists call the “cuddle hormone,” bonding mother to child and lover to lover, prompting you to spoon your sex partner sweetly instead of falling asleep after a killer round in bed. It promotes intimacy, making you feel safe, nurtured and brimming over with a sense of calm and well-being.
That’s not all. This powerful hormone might even have the ability to kill the effect of alcohol.
Giving Rats a Sobriety Test
Alcohol causes symptoms of intoxication such as loss of fine motor control by binding to sites in the brain known as delta-subunit GABA-A receptors. Scientists at the University of Sydney, Australia, and the University of Regensburg, Germany, just published a fascinating study that shows oxytocin actually blocks alcohol from accessing those receptors in the brains of rats.
Lead author Dr. Michael Bowen from the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology took three rats and injected one with a dose of alcohol equivalent to a bottle of wine for a human, then gave another a shot of oxytocin followed by the same dose of alcohol. The last of the rats he left completely sober and without any oxytocin.
All three rats were placed in separate spaces and monitored over a period of hours. The rat that had no alcohol or oxytocin in its system moved around the space with the alertness you’d expect from a sober rodent. The rat who received only alcohol stayed buried in the corner of the box, barely moving throughout the entire experiment, which is painful—but slightly hilarious—to watch. The rat administered oxytocin and alcohol ran around with the same coordination and cognition of the first uninebriated rat.
“In the rat equivalent of a sobriety test, the rats given alcohol and oxytocin passed with flying colors, while those given alcohol without oxytocin were seriously impaired,” 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 behavior that the rats are actually drunk. It’s a truly remarkable effect.”
It isn’t clear whether oxytocin will block the effects of alcohol in humans, although scientists have a hunch we homo sapiens will respond in a similar fashion to the rodents. Before any clinical trials can begin, a safe means to administer large doses of the hormone needs to be figured out. (Oxytocin is currently for sale all over the online marketplace in the form of nasal sprays, but they don’t dish out a large enough dose for the desired effect.)
“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,” Bowen said.
No Danger of Heavier Drinking
Since a classic feature of alcoholism is the build-up of a stubborn tolerance to the intoxicating effect of booze, one might worry that blocking the effect could lead to heavier drinking. According to Bowen, the opposite would occur. Earlier studies by him and other researchers proved taking oxytocin actually lowers alcohol cravings in both humans and rats.
“We believe that the effects of oxytocin on alcohol consumption and craving act through a similar mechanism in the brain to the one identified in our research,” he said.
The researchers’ findings have potentially huge implications. No drug has so far been able to kill an alcohol buzz—outside of a line of coke or a vat of coffee or speed. Whether this kind of treatment can help an alcoholic stay off the sauce for good is another question entirely and one that only time, and more research, will help answer.
Until further notice, you can always cuddle someone who’s trashed instead of giving them coffee. It may just help them sober up safely.