Some very prominent emotion scientists have theorized that opioids (made inside our brains) are at the root of human attachment. Mother’s milk is rich with opioid molecules. In other words, nature found a surefire way to soothe the baby with its mother’s milk, using the same chemical formula that’s responsible for the soothing feeling of heroin. Jaak Panksepp theorizes that all social attachment is based on the release of opioids within the brain.
Then about research finding endogenous opioid production may be activated by had holding.
The brain regions that got calmed down by hand-holding (including regions of the ventral ACC, ventral prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula) are the same brain regions that have a high density of opioid receptors! The authors speculate (and I think it’s very likely) that opioid release is what causes the deactivation of these emotional hot spots. The subjects also reported less unpleasantness when they were holding hands while anticipating the shock. And, get this, the reduction in unpleasantness was correlated with the reduction in brain activity in these hot spots.
Then he suggests these findings may explain some benefits of 12 step meetings.
In a recent debate on this blog, I argued that a supportive group like NA makes sense as a primary treatment for addiction–not a secondary one. Certainly members of NA or AA see their group experience — with or without hand-holding — to be the most powerful antidote to their feelings of anxiety, stress, loneliness, and all the other negative variants that can lead to relapse. Now we can point to a very concrete, biological mechanism responsible for the soothing function of the group: when you are in close contact with people who care about you (even a little), your own brain releases opioids. And, in a sense, those opioids replace the opioids you’d otherwise be buying on the street.
This begs a question about medications that interfere with pleasure responses to drugs and alcohol. Do these meds also interfere with endogenous opioid responses? I had a friend who was going research on it nearly 20 years ago. He told me that he was frequently approached after presentations by people who were on the drug and reported weird effects like no longer liking cheesecake.
I found one study on the issue and it found no adverse effects, however is was funded by the manufacturer of the drug. It’s worth noting that researchers use naltrexone to “disrupt opioid neurotransmission in mouse pups and their attachment relationships with the mother.”
So…might this medication, and others like it, interfere with the benefits of 12 step groups? It seems like a question worth asking.