Oxytocin: A Potential New Treatment for Alcoholism

Project: Research project


Alcohol dependence (AD), the medical term for alcoholism, is among the most common and costly mental health problems. The mainstay of treatment for many decades has been support groups and individual counseling. In recent years, a few drug treatments have been introduced. However, they have not come into widespread use because research studies and doctors’ experience have found them to have limited effectiveness. Pioneering research conducted within
the UNC Department of Psychiatry by Drs. Casey, Pedersen and Garbutt indicates that oxytocin, a small protein that is also a neurotransmitter in the brain, appears to be a truly novel and very promising treatment for alcohol addiction. The goal of the proposed project is to test whether oxytocin treatment will decrease drinking in alcohol dependent patients. AD develops when substantial quantities of alcohol are consumed frequently (every day or
most days) for sustained periods (weeks to years). Repeated consumption leads to tolerance formation which means more and more alcohol is required to get the same effect. This is because chemical changes occur in the brain as it adapts to repeated exposure to alcohol. Once a high degree of tolerance has developed, very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms (such as shakes,
nausea, hot-cold sweats) and sometimes dangerous symptoms (delirium, seizures, psychosis) occur if alcohol consumption stops or decreases. One reason people with AD continue to drink is to prevent withdrawal. Individuals who develop AD also become more anxious and have difficulty coping with stress if they cut back or stop drinking. Alcohol consumption relieves these symptoms. So another mechanism that maintains drinking in individuals with AD is the
need for relief from anxiety and stress. Oxytocin has become known in the popular culture as the “love” or “trust” hormone. This is based on extensive animal research demonstrating that oxytocin has numerous “prosocial”
effects including activation of maternal-infant and other social bonds. In humans, oxytocin administration in a nasal spray, which deposits a significant amount into the brain, increases interpersonal trust and cooperation as well as accurate interpretation of social cues like facial expressions, prosocial effects akin to those found in animals. However, animal studies found other potentially clinically useful effects of oxytocin. Among these discoveries in animals were
1) oxytocin treatment prevented tolerance formation to repeated doses of alcohol, and 2) oxytocin treatment blocked withdrawal in alcohol addicted mice. Oxytocin also potently reduces anxiety and stress responses in animals. These animal results led Drs. Casey, Pedersen and Garbutt to compare twice daily intranasal
oxytocin vs. placebo treatment in heavy-drinking, alcohol-addicted patients admitted to a research unit for medical treatment (detoxification) to safely come off of alcohol. Oxytocin markedly reduced withdrawal symptoms, the total amount of standard drug treatment (Ativan) needed to complete detoxification, and anxiety measures. Based on these dramatic results, as well as recent evidence from UNC researchers that oxytocin treatment decreases drinking, anxiety and stress vulnerability in a rat model of relapse, this proposal aims to test
whether intranasal oxytocin in outpatient alcohol-dependent patients will decrease their drinking, alcohol craving and anxiety. Funding from the Foundation of Hope would allow us to begin to answer this important question and generate data with which to submit a competitive NIH grant to conduct a more comprehensive study of oxytocin treatment of AD.
Effective start/end date9/25/139/24/16


  • Foundation of Hope for Research and Treatment of Mental Illness


Alcohol Drinking
Substance Withdrawal Syndrome
Nasal Sprays
Facial Expression
Self-Help Groups
Pharmaceutical Preparations
Psychotic Disorders