‘Hug hormone’ boosts social interactions like marijuana: Study

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Displays at Shango Cannabis shop on first day of legal recreational marijuana sales beginning at midnight in Portland, Oregon October 1, 2015. Reuters/Steve Dipaola

Scientists have discovered the link between the so-called hug or cuddle hormone, oxytocin, and the effect of weed on human behaviour that boosts bonding. A new study suggests that oxytocin could make social interactions more rewarding and pleasurable by activating the body’s cannabinoid system.

Researchers from the University of California found that oxytocin works in the human body by stimulating the release of the chemical called “bliss molecule” anandamide. The chemical helps influence  human behaviour by activating brain receptors to increase motivation and happiness.

Researchers said that the study is the first to show the effect of the marijuana-like neurotransmitter, oxytocin, on how people interact with others. The findings could also help experts explore and understand mechanisms of social impairments like autism and develop a new treatment, they added.

The body also produces another molecule that works like the anandamide known as the endocannabinoids. These molecules act the same way as cannabis, the researchers said in the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An earlier study shows that endocannabinoids are involved in the regulation of neuronal signalling from the nucleus accumbens (NAc). The nucleus accumbens is a region of the brain where the effects of oxytocin on social reward is observed.

The researchers conducted tests on mice by isolating the subjects from their peers for 24 hours and returning them to the group to observe bonding. The result showed that social contact helped increase the amount of anandamide released in the NAc, while isolation reduced its level. The activated cannabinoid receptor was found to reinforce social interaction rewards.

The researchers conducted another test in which they stimulated oxytocin-producing cells in the brain. The result showed that the stimulation caused a boost in the release of anandamide in the NAc, and that blocking oxytocin receptors reversed the effect.

Analysing the overall findings, the researchers found that boosting anandamide levels can promote social rewards that made the animal models spend more time with others. The findings could potentially lead to improvements on the treatment of people with social deficits.

“We think that there is a disruption in cooperative oxytocin-anandamide signalling in autism,” lead researcher Daniele Piomelli told IFL Science. The findings may have implications to other patients as “animal models of autism have multiple disruptions in endocannabinoid signalling,” which is involved in social interaction.

Piomelli said that boosting anandamide levels in the same method with the animals was effective in correcting social reward deficits. The process could potentially be effective to humans, he added.

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