Increased oxytocin levels among abstinent heroin addicts: Association with aggressiveness, psychiatric symptoms and perceived childhood neglect

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A disruption of the oxytocin system seems to affect a variety of brain functions including emotions, mood and social behavior possibly underlying severe social deficits and susceptibility for substance use and mental health disorders. Early life adversity, such as insecure attachment in childhood, has been suggested to influence oxytocin tone contributing to a condition of neurobiological vulnerability.

Aim of the present study was to investigate oxytocin serum levels in abstinent heroin addicted patients, in comparison with healthy controls, and the possible correlation with co-occurring psychiatric symptoms, aggressiveness and perception of parental neglect. Eighteen (18) abstinent patients, affected by heroin use disorders, and 18 control subjects, who never used drugs or abused alcohol, were included in the study and submitted to 1) collection of a blood sample for oxytocin assay, 2) Symptoms Check List 90 for psychiatric symptoms evaluation 3) Buss Durkee Hostility Inventory to measure aggressiveness 4) Child Experience of Care and Abuse-Questionnaire to retrospectively test the perception of parental neglect. Heroin exposure extent and heroin dosages were also recorded. Oxytocin serum levels were unexpectedly significantly higher among abstinent patients affected by heroin use disorders and positively correlated with psychiatric symptoms, aggressiveness and mother neglect scores. No correlation was evidenced between oxytocin and heroin exposure extent or dosages. Our findings appear to contradict the simplistic view of oxytocin as a pro-social hormone and confirm previous evidence concerning the peptide levels direct association with aggressive behavior and mood disorders. Considering a more complex mechanism, oxytocin would increase the sensitivity to social salience cues related to contextual or inter-individual factors, promoting pro-sociality in “safe” conditions and, in contrast, inducing more defensive and “anti-social” emotions and behaviors when the social cues are interpreted as “unsafe”. This latter condition is often characterizing the clinical history of addicted patients.

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