Oxytocin is being tested for treatment of PTSD and alcohol abuse

April 14, 2017 by Robin Marks
Oxytocin is being tested for treatment of PTSD and alcohol abuse
Credit: University of California, San Francisco

Nightmares. Obsessive thoughts. Avoiding particular places. Sudden outbursts. Fearing you're in danger. Survivor guilt.

These experiences – manifestations of post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) – are part of life for up to 1 in 3 U.S. combat veterans and active military personnel. That's more than triple the prevalence of PTSD in the population at large. About two-thirds of those with PTSD struggle with .

A new trial may hold new hope for these military personnel through treatment with oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the "love ."

A Shift in Thinking

It's no surprise that the threat or actuality of battle takes a psychological toll. What is surprising, are changes that Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, an associate professor of neurology in the UCSF School of Medicine, has found in the U.S. military's attitude toward the condition, and its willingness to experiment in order to help troubled soldiers.

"It used to be that when an officer was experiencing this kind of thing, they were simply excused from the military," said Mitchell, whose work focuses on PTSD and . "Now they're coming to accept that this is happening to many career personnel, and the military wants to keep these active duty people going. It's an entirely new development philosophically."

That shift is allowing Mitchell to test the potential of oxytocin, a hormone released during sex, childbirth and lactation as a treatment for PTSD and substance abuse among active military personnel. Oxytocin, present in both women and men, plays a role in social behavior, trust, empathy, and managing stress and anxiety. Its qualities have drawn researchers to the hormone, which is showing promise as a treatment for autism and schizophrenia.

Oxytocin is being tested for treatment of PTSD and alcohol abuse
A visual representation of oxytocin shows the structure of the hormone. Credit: University of California, San Francisco

"It helps with several conditions because they all involve similar stress responses," said Mitchell, who has published findings about oxytocin for substance abuse. "Our thinking is that oxytocin can also help mitigate the stress response induced by trauma, and therefore keep particular behaviors at bay."

Complex Results Around Bonding

When she proposed giving oxytocin, which has been variously dubbed the "," the "moral molecule," and the "cuddle chemical," to active duty personnel, "there was some concern about whether it would affect their ability to perform," said Mitchell. "The answer is no. But the question arises because oxytocin is kind of misunderstood."

The hormone does make people feel bonded to others, she said, but the effects are more complex.

"It defines how we draw our circles of 'us' and 'them,'" said Mitchell, noting that for military officers who've been through trauma, the circle of "us" can become very small – a factor that contributes to their stress.

Mitchell's hope is that oxytocin will allow dealing with PTSD to broaden their "us" circles. If she's right, the hormone could temper their stress responses, and allow them to better control their PTSD symptoms and alcohol abuse that arises from them.

Mitchell is beginning a clinical trial to test her ideas at a mental health facility at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. She'll work with about 65 volunteers, initially giving patients single doses of oxytocin and then subjecting them to a stress test.

If ameliorates the stress response, Mitchell said, the implications go way beyond the military. "The amount of money spent managing the fallout of PTSD and substance in our whole society is enormous," she said. "We're hoping we can address that by bringing an overlooked, cheap, accessible drug into use for the public."

Explore further: New study examines gender differences in PTSD among military personnel

More information: Jennifer M. Mitchell et al. Intranasal Oxytocin Selectively Modulates Social Perception, Craving, and Approach Behavior in Subjects With Alcohol Use Disorder, Journal of Addiction Medicine (2016). DOI: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000213

Related Stories

New study examines gender differences in PTSD among military personnel

March 2, 2017
A study of U.S. Navy healthcare personnel has shown that when comparing the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women and men who had similar deployment experiences, and especially combat experience, ...

Posttraumatic stress and alcohol use disorders hit American-Indian and Alaskan-Native men the hardest

January 30, 2017
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a traumatic event or events. Although it is most often associated with military personnel exposed to the trauma of combat, it can also disproportionately affect vulnerable ...

A soldier and a sex worker walk into a therapist's office. Who's more likely to have PTSD?

March 28, 2017
When we think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we most often think of soldiers traumatised by their experiences of war. But the statistics tell another story.

'Love hormone' oxytocin, possible anxiety drug, shows different effects in male and female mice

December 2, 2015
Clinical trials are testing whether oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" for its role in intimacy and social bonding, has potential as a treatment for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. New research ...

Australian-first trial offers faster treatment for PTSD

February 3, 2017
An Australian-first research program will help improve treatment for up to one million Australians with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Federal legislation ignores PTSD toll on civilians

November 11, 2014
Federal laws explicitly addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have overwhelmingly focused on the needs of military personnel and veterans, according to a new analysis published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Recommended for you

Marijuana use amongst youth stable, but substance abuse admissions up

August 15, 2017
While marijuana use amongst youth remains stable, youth admission to substance abuse treatment facilities has increased, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Report reveals underground US haven for heroin, drug users

August 8, 2017
A safe haven where drug users inject themselves with heroin and other drugs has been quietly operating in the United States for the past three years, a report reveals.

Regular energy drink use linked to later drug use among young adults

August 8, 2017
Could young adults who regularly consume highly caffeinated energy drinks be at risk for future substance use? A new study by University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol ...

Gamblers more likely to have suffered childhood traumas, research shows

August 2, 2017
Men with problem and pathological gambling addictions are more likely to have suffered childhood traumas including physical abuse or witnessing violence in the home, according to new research.

Incorporating 12-step program elements improves youth substance-use disorder treatment

July 26, 2017
A treatment program for adolescents with substance-use disorder that incorporates the practices and philosophy of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) produced even better results than the current state-of-the ...

Concern with potential rise in super-potent cannabis concentrates

July 21, 2017
University of Queensland researchers are concerned the recent legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia may give rise to super-potent cannabis concentrates with associated harmful effects.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.