Opioids and social bonding: naltrexone reduces feelings of social connection

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Close social bonds are critical to a happy and fulfilled life and yet little is known, in humans, about the neurochemical mechanisms that keep individuals feeling close and connected to one another. According to the brain opioid theory of social attachment, opioids may underlie the contented feelings associated with social connection and may be critical to continued bonding. However, the role of opioids in feelings of connection toward close others has only begun to be examined in humans. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study of naltrexone (an opioid antagonist), 31 volunteers took naltrexone for 4 days and placebo for 4 days (separated by a 10-day washout period). Participants came to the laboratory once on the last day of taking each drug to complete a task designed to elicit feelings of social connection. Participants also completed daily reports of feelings of social connection while on naltrexone and placebo. In line with hypotheses, and for the first time in humans, results demonstrated that naltrexone (vs placebo) reduced feelings of connection both in the laboratory and in daily reports. These results highlight the importance of opioids for social bonding with close others, lending support to the brain opioid theory of social attachment.

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