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Stable Relationships Encourage Sobriety

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. explained in her Psychology Today blog Why Getting Married, or Even Shacking Up, May Reduce the Risk of Addiction and asks “Who needs methamphetamine when you’ve found your soulmate?”

The slogan “Hugs, Not Drugs” gained some added scientific weight when a study in the latest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience provided evidence that being in a steady, supportive romantic relationship can protect against addiction.

Researchers at Florida State University decided to investigate whether relationship status influenced how males responded to the highly addictive drug methamphetamine. Male prairie voles, that is, who have long been used as an animal model for human relationships. Like humans, they tend to form long-term, often life-long pair bonds (though, also like humans, they sometimes cheat). Pairs cuddle, and build a life of shared domestic and child-rearing responsibilities.

They introduced the drug both to prairie voles who still were virgins, and not yet bonded with a partner, and to prairie voles who had established a (mostly) monogamous relationship. They found that pair-bonded prairie voles were less interested in the drug in general. Only the unbonded virgins were willing to spend time in a frightening cage to gain access to the methamphetamine. (Not a bad comparison for the human counterpart of hanging around a sketchy neighborhood to score.)

When the researchers looked at how the brains of the prairie voles responded to direct administration of the drug, they saw that brains of the unbonded voles increased the activity of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine release in this region is known to be a key mechanism by which a substance becomes addictive – be it alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, or food.

But in the brains of bonded voles, their dopamine receptors became less responsive. Mating is like a drug in itself, and possibly one that forever shapes which rewards the brain responds to.

The researchers suggest that for humans, consistent with previous human research, social bonds may reduce the risk of addiction, especially the supportive bonds found in long-term relationships. How secure you feel in close relationships predict lifetime prevalence of substance abuse.  The less social support and less relationship security, the greater the risk of addiction.

Hugs Not Drugs!