Can a Mother's Touch Prevent Drug Addiction?

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One of the known components of drug addiction is genetic, but surprisingly, those genes don’t necessarily get expressed. In what is referred to as “developmental plasticity,” some gene expression is modified by early experiences. A report in Science News Daily implies this might be so for drug addiction.

Researchers used a rat model to see whether affection was relevant to the risk of later addiction. The pups (baby rats) either got extra attention from their mothers or normal amounts. This was done by temporarily removing the pups and returning them – rat moms give extra grooming and “affection” when this occurs. The two groups were then compared later in their lives to see how tempted they were by morphine.

It appears that the extra attention from mom reduced the propensity to become addicted later. And this was supported by changes in the brains of the animals.

Investigators looked at an immune system molecule known to be involved in morphine addiction and found that, despite genetic similarities, the “loved” rats made more compared to the control group. This is thought to be responsible for the extra resistance to morphine cravings in adulthood.

How well this translates to humans isn’t yet known. We do know, however, that differences in early childhood experiences result in measurable differences in adulthood. And we do make the same molecule measured in this experiment. It would be unethical to duplicate the tests with human babies, but epidemiological studies that look at early nurturing might find the same differences as seen in rats.

What an amazing result that would be – if we could reduce addictions simply by a mother’s touch. And, as shown in this study, it isn’t farfetched to think so. How much of the link between poor social conditions and difficult upbringing is responsible for the link between poverty, broken homes and addiction? It’s too soon to tell, but this certainly makes one think.

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