Originally published on 16 February 2018.
Hugs not drugs
Here’s a situation that doesn’t really add up.
If you asked someone what the most developed country in the world is, they’d likely reply “America”. It’s certainly the richest (by GDP) and most powerful.
So how is it that US life expectancy is falling?
In 2016 it was down for the second year in a row, which hasn’t happened for more than 50 years.
And according to Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch with the National Center for Health Statistics, early data on 2017’s figures doesn’t look any better.
It’s very likely life expectancy in the US is down for the third year in a row.
“We haven’t seen more than two years in a row in declining life expectancy since the Spanish flu – 100 years ago. We would be entering that sort of territory, which is extremely concerning,” says Anderson.
What’s going on?
In short, drugs. But not the kind you probably think.
Prescription drugs are the problem
Most people, when they picture an addict, think of someone like this.
But it turns out, most drug addicts are ordinary people, going about ordinary lives.
The worst and most destructive drugs aren’t the illegal ones. They are the ones prescribed by medical professionals and advertised on TV.
Like heroin, they are opioids, or synthetic opioids, and have the same effects.
Let’s not forget, heroin was originally marketed as a cough syrup by Bayer. Its medical name is diamorphine. It’s basically just a stronger form of morphine.
From 1898 through to 1910, diamorphine was marketed under the trademark name Heroin as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. In the 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (1910), the article on morphine states: “In the cough of phthisis minute doses [of morphine] are of service, but in this particular disease morphine is frequently better replaced by codeine or by heroin, which checks irritable coughs without the narcotism following upon the administration of morphine.”
And it is still prescribed in almost every hospital, the world over.
Still, according to drugbase.gov, prescription painkillers kill more people in the US than illegal heroin and cocaine combined.
The Guardian sums up the situation very well in just a few paragraphs.
Why is there an opioid crisis in America?
Almost 100 people are dying every day across America from opioid overdoses – more than car crashes and shootings combined. The majority of these fatalities reveal widespread addiction to powerful prescription painkillers.
The crisis unfolded in the mid-90s when the US pharmaceutical industry began marketing legal narcotics, particularly OxyContin, to treat everyday pain.
This slow-release opioid was vigorously promoted to doctors and, amid lax regulation and slick sales tactics, people were assured it was safe. But the drug was akin to luxury morphine, doled out like super aspirin, and highly addictive.
What resulted was a commercial triumph and a public health tragedy. Belated efforts to rein in distribution fueled a resurgence of heroin and the emergence of a deadly, black market version of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The crisis is so deep because it affects all races, regions and incomes.
Here’s another crazy statistic: overdoses from opioids in the US were up 50% in 2016, according to Sky News.
You would have thought by now that drug treatment and policy would have found a solution to this problem.
But then, you have to remember that drug policy is made up by politicians not by scientists.
Logic and politicians don’t mix
The US’ “war on drugs” policy isn’t helping, and arguably has never helped. You can’t really tell people to “just say no” to prescriptions.
Other countries, like Portugal, have effectively solved their drugs problems through decriminalisation.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, to worldwide media outcry.
You don’t hear much about that decision any more, because it worked. And that doesn’t sit well with most other countries, most politicians, or most of the mainstream media.
Portugal now only has three overdose deaths per million people. The US drug overdose rate is over 6,000% higher.
And let’s not forget the reason Portugal enacted this policy was because of its huge problems with drug overdoses and HIV. It’s not like it had few drug deaths to start with and it remained low.
From 2001 to 2012, overdoses in Portugal dropped by 80%.
Whether you hate and oppose drugs or not, it’s hard to argue with that success story.
Still, the US (also the UK, for that matter) is extremely opposed to the decriminalisation approach for hard drugs.
Logic and politicians don’t really mix.
So if the US isn’t going to change its “war on drugs” policy any time soon – although hopefully it will see sense eventually, as it has with legal marijuana – that leaves treatment.
And it just so happens we could be on the verge of the biggest breakthrough in addiction treatment, well, ever.
A “silver bullet” for addiction
Treatment for addiction hasn’t changed much in decades, if ever. It revolves around rehab.
There aren’t really any medications you can take that help cure your addition. For heroin, there is methadone, but it’s still a synthetic opioid in itself and not exactly ideal.
“Although addictive substances claim as many lives as cancer each year, no cures are available and few drug companies are interested in developing them,” says New Scientist.
Current treatments aren’t so great. In fact, 40% to 60% of people leaving rehab will relapse within a year.
That’s why one scientist, Iain McGregor, working out of the University of Sydney, decided to look at treatments for addiction in a different way.
As New Scientist states:
One of the hallmarks of addiction is a waning interest in human contact and a growing fixation on seeking vice.
A decade ago, this observation gave McGregor an idea. Would it be possible to reverse substance addiction by switching the brain back from drug-chasing mode to social mode?
If McGregor’s hunch was right, this could be a silver bullet – a universal treatment for all addictions at once.
So, how did he go about it?
Hugs not drugs
I used to go to a lot of festivals when I was younger. And there were always a good number of people dolling out “hugs not drugs”.
It sounds stupid, but those people, who, to be honest really did not come across well, may have been on to something.
The secret to curing addiction may actually lie in that annoying, mawkish phrase: hugs not drugs.
Oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone”, is released during sex, childbirth and most close physical contact. It plays a major role in human bonding.
As Psychology Today states:
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm.
When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding.
The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.
McGregor decided to see what positive effects oxytocin may have on addicts. His idea was to change them from substance-seeking loners, to sociable content people.
And to cut a long story short, his oxytocin experiments proved wildly successful – in rats.
He first tried injecting oxytocin into methamphetamine addicted rats, and basically cured them.
Initially they were so addicted they would push a lever hundreds of times to get one hit. After oxytocin they almost completely stopped pressing it.
He got the same miraculous results with alcoholic, cocaine and heroin addicted rats.
When he wanted to test it out on people, the injecting route was out of the question, so he had to develop an oral treatment instead.
This treatment is called SOC-1, which stands for synthetic oxytocin-like compound. It’s basically a precursor to a full oxytocin molecule.
It was just as successful on the rats, and even worked on the old psychologist favourite, rhesus monkeys, too.
Not only that, but SOC-1 can even help prevent relapses.
In one experiment meth addicted rats were weened off meth and then later given a very small amount of meth to make them relapse. They went back to pushing the lever that used to give them a hit frantically. Hitting it 120 times over two hours.
The meth rats that that were previously treated with SOC-1 barely touched the lever.
McGregor says lasting effects are due to the “state of change” oxytocin brings about.
“For example, in child birth, mothers don’t want to be in love with their babies for just a few minutes. The initial oxytocin surge needs to have an enduring effect,” he says.
In another test, he says alcoholic rats treated with a single dose of SOC-1 halved their consumption of raspberry flavoured vodka (why he chose to get rats hooked on raspberry flavoured vodka specifically is anyone’s guess) over the full six-week experiment.
And SOC-1 may even be useful on other types of addiction, like gambling. And in social anxiety disorders.
McGregor’s colleague, Michael Bowen, sums up the prospects for SOC-1 well: “For millions of people who are really struggling with these disorders, I hold great hope that SOC-1 will provide the breakthrough they are waiting for.”
Will the cuddle hormone be a silver bullet for addiction and social anxiety? The results so far look very promising.
In the meantime, other countries could probably take a leaf out of Portugal’s book.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology