Optimizing social effects of oxytocin with opioid blockers

  • Awarded: 2015
  • Award Type: Explorer
  • Award #: 365029

Opioids have long been implicated in social behaviors. Reducing opioid activity increases affiliative social behaviors and social reward-seeking while lowering stereotypies and self-injurious behaviors. The specific role of opioid blockers in complex social cognition, however, requires more investigation.

Recently, oxytocin has been in focus as a potential treatment for social deficits in autism. Studies suggest that intranasal administration of oxytocin improves social cognition in individuals with autism, possibly through increased fixations of the eye region of a face. However, the efficacy of intranasal oxytocin in boosting social cognition is highly variable among individuals and not as robust as one would hope for a potential therapy. It is therefore important to continuously explore how to further enhance the effect of oxytocin in promoting social cognition.

The opioid antagonists naloxone and naltrexone potently increase oxytocin levels in the brain but do not affect vasopressin levels, indicating a specific regulatory relationship of opioids and oxytocin. Based on this regulatory mechanism, administration of oxytocin in conjunction with naloxone or naltrexone may optimally promote prosocial functions. Yet, it remains unknown what the combinatorial benefit might be, if any, when oxytocin and naloxone/naltrexone are administered together.

Steve Chang and his colleagues at Yale University are testing the combined effect of naloxone/naltrexone and oxytocin on social attention and natural social interaction in a nonhuman primate model. The team will explore whether enhancing oxytocin while attenuating opioid activity, using naloxone/naltrexone, will significantly boost prosocial behaviors compared with delivering either chemical alone. Using this approach, Chang’s team aims to establish a new direction for investigating the combined oxytocin and opioid blocker therapy for enhancing social behavior.

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