New research from the University of Adelaide in Australia suggests that poor development of oxytocin in early childhood may explain why some individuals succumb to addictive behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse.

Oxytocin, more commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” is known to play an important role in partnership, social interaction and maternal behavior.

The research team, led by Dr. Femke Buisman-Pijlman of the School of Medical Sciences at the university, recently published their findings in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

Dr. Buisman-Pijlman says previous research has shown that people have significantly varying levels of oxytocin in their bodies.

“We’re interested in how and why people have such differences in oxytocin, and what we can do about it to have a beneficial impact on people’s health and well-being,” she adds.

We are all born with oxytocin in our bodies. The hormone plays an important role in the development of a bond between mother and child.

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Researchers say poor oxytocin development in early childhood may predispose individuals to addictive behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse.

But Dr. Buisman-Pijlman says our oxytocin systems do not finish developing until the age of 3 years, “which means our systems are potentially subject to a range of influences, both external and internal.”

She says the main factors that influence how our oxytocin systems develop are genetics, gender and environment.

Of course, the genes we are born with cannot be changed. But Dr. Buisman-Pijlman says environmental factors may play a role in the development of our oxytocin systems until they are fully developed.

These factors may include early exposure to drugs, stress, trauma or severe infection.

For their study, the investigators conducted a review of existing research that looked at the association between oxytocin and addiction.

The team found that some studies revealed certain risk factors for drug addiction in children as young as 4 years of age. Dr. Buisman-Pijlman says that since the oxytocin system has fully developed by the age of 3, “this could be a critical window to study.”

If the oxytocin system develops properly, it can reduce the pleasure of drugs and the feeling of stress. But if the system does not develop properly, could this mean that some people are predisposed to addictive behavior?

“A well-developed oxytocin system is in a position to directly and indirectly increase resilience, for example by reducing drug reward, increasing social reward, reducing anxiety, reducing stress response and immune stimulation,” the researchers explain.

If adversity is encountered, the oxytocin system still develops, but basal levels might be lower and it might be less responsive. Connectivity might be different with other systems.

In short, individual differences in the endogenous oxytocin system may arise based on early life experiences.”

According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 8.7% of the US population aged 12 and over was treated for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse addiction in 2010.

Dr. Buisman-Pijlman says that understanding what occurs during oxytocin development in the first few years of life could help determine what leads to addictive behavior, and even lead to new strategies for treatment and prevention of such behavior.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that high oxytocin levels trigger oversensitivity to emotions of others.