Do opioids contribute to social bonding?

It seems so (uh-oh):

Close social bonds are critical to immediate and long-term well-being. However, the neurochemical mechanisms by which we remain connected to our closest loved ones are not well understood. Opioids have long been theorized to contribute to social bonding via their actions on the brain. But feelings of social connection toward one’s own close others and direct comparisons of ventral striatum (VS) activity in response to close others and strangers, a neural correlate of social bonding, have not been explored. Therefore, the current clinical trial examined whether opioids causally affect neural and experiential signatures of social bonding. Eighty participants were administered naltrexone (n = 40), an opioid antagonist that blocks natural opioid processing, or placebo (n = 40) before completing a functional MRI scan where they viewed images of their close others and individuals they had not seen before (i.e., strangers). Feelings of social connection to the close others and physical symptoms commonly experienced when taking naltrexone were also collected. In support of hypotheses, naltrexone (vs. placebo) reduced feelings of social connection toward the close others (e.g., family, friends, romantic partners). Furthermore, naltrexone (vs. placebo) reduced left VS activity in response to images of the same close others, but did not alter left VS activity to strangers. Finally, the positive correlation between feelings of connection and VS activity to close others present in the placebo condition was erased by naltrexone. Effects remained after adjusting for physical symptoms. Together, results lend support to theories suggesting that opioids contribute to social bonding, especially with our closest loved ones.

Here is the full article, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Note the top item behind the Lewis link: “We find zero or modestly positive estimated effects of these [Haitian] migrants on the educational outcomes of incumbent students in the year of the earthquake or in the 2 years that follow, regardless of the socioeconomic status, grade level, ethnicity, or birthplace of incumbent students.”


'Do opioids contribute to social bonding?'


And this being the MR comments section, it is likely that some commenters will need to be led by the hand to understand why 'opioids,' as represented by pharmaceuticals or in poppies , have nothing to do with social bonding in those places where the opium poppy was unknown. Such as North or South America until roughly 1500CE, or China before 400CE.

Yes. And to provide a bit more hand-holding, just because "scientists" see certain areas on an fMRI scan of the brain light up does not mean there is evidence of social bonding. For example, "naltrexone (vs. placebo) reduced feelings of social connection toward the close others" should actually be read "naltrexone (vs. placebo) reduced measured blood flow in an area of the brain that, in other subjects, was showed increased blood flow when participants were shown pictures of close others." Who knows if this even measures "social connection"? Maybe it just measures brain activation when a person sees something familiar. Maybe the researchers should have also shown them their car. If it measures recognition of something that has made the person happy in the past, perhaps the "scientist" should have also shown the participants pictures of fast food or attractive people. I once heard a Nobel winner say that using fMRI scans to understand how the brain works is like holding a thermometer to a motherboard to understand a computer works.

Also, have these researchers ever met heroin junkies? Beyond the one or two people they shoot up with, those are some socially isolated mother f*@kers.

Este juego se practica mejor con cuatro más jugadores.

Social drinking does the same, particularly for men. Sad that pub culture is slowly dying across Europe.

Some people find it hard to drag themselves away from Minecraft and Marginal's comment threads.

This is what Jaak Panksepp always said... Although more accurately, his research claimed that opioids reduce the pain of social isolation. Quoting for example, from this link

"Forty years ago the late neuroscience pioneer Jaak Panksepp first proposed the now widely accepted hypothesis that our body’s naturally produced opioids—endorphins and closely related enkephalins—are critical to the nurturing bonds that develop between parents and offspring and also between monogamous mates in mammals. Panksepp’s work and that of others showed that blocking one opioid system in the brain—which relies on the mu-opioid receptor—increased the distress calls of infants separated from their mothers in species as varied as dogs, rats, birds and monkeys. Giving an opioid drug (in doses too low to produce sedation) reduced such cries."

... and lots more research exists.

The West damaged 19th century China with opioids. China returns the favor this century.

Or: the West, allowing its own citizens to enjoy the benefits of opium, felt that Chinese citizens should also have the choice of those benefits.

It's just a matter of point of view, isn't it?

"...results lend support to theories suggesting that opioids contribute to social bonding, especially with our closest loved ones."

Domestic violence and abuse implies social bonding with loved ones. Opioids may only make the abuser feel closer to the victims. I'm not sure this is the kind of social bonding, traumatic bonding, is a positive thing.

"theories suggesting that opioids contribute to social bonding"
The theories are all about endogenous (i.e. self-produced) opioids. I don't know what Tyler's "uh-oh" was about beyond trolling.

I read uh-oh as...

Uh-oh: (if) the trend is toward weaker social ties, people will be motivated to reproduce the missing feeling of social tie-edness through other means.

The colony of Hong Kong was created because China didn't want drugs in their country, fought a war, lost, and forced to give up land to the British. Speaking of which, the military buildup along the HK border looks frightening:

Even more frightening is the fifth column operating freely in our midst.

Sad that the world's top two superpowers, the US and China, treat their minorities like crap. The US exterminates them in mass shootings while China brainwashes them in concentration camps.

Evidently, America is not perfect, and mistakes may have been committed, but it is different from Red China's totalitarian aggression.

"mistakes may have been committed..."

Really. Hadn't noticed.

"China didn't want drugs in their country": the Chinese government didn't. Evidently lots of Chinese citizens did. Rather reminiscent of the case of marijuana in the USA until very recently.

I don't know much about opioids. Trouble is, much that is widely known may well be wrong.


Socially warm experiences, when one feels connected to others, have been linked with physical warmth. Opioids, hypothesized to support social bonding with close others and, separately, physical warmth, may underlie both experiences. In order to test this hypothesis, 80 participants were randomly assigned to the opioid antagonist, naltrexone or placebo before neural and emotional responses to social and physical warmth were collected. Social and physical warmth led to similar increases in ventral striatum (VS) and middle-insula (MI) activity. Further, feelings of social connection were positively related to neural activity to social warmth. However, naltrexone (vs placebo) disrupted these effects by (i) reducing VS and MI activity to social and physical warmth, (ii) erasing the subjective experience–brain association to social warmth and (iii) disrupting the neural overlap between social and physical warmth. Results provide additional support for the theory that social and physical warmth share neurobiological, opioid receptor-dependent mechanisms and suggest multiple routes by which social connections may be maintained.

n=40 and brain scans? I thought we were better than that now.

Re: Haitian refugees.

I doubt many (any?) would dispute that traditional, white majority America can accommodate and benefit from some small number of immigrant guests, especially well-behaved and grateful ones. The issues are only about scale: how many, and for how long? The short term experience with new arrivals (immediately post an earthquake) seems basically orthogonal to what a school is like with (say) a 30-years established 70% Haitian majority. (Not like a Haitian school??)

So if a physician prescribes opioids for pain, the side effect will be fouled up family connections. And physicians did no know this until Apr 2019?

Prescribing opioids will atrophy the natural opium system, making life miserable and painful without artificial opiods.

Sounds like a promising zombie apocalypse plot.

the paper is referring to *endogenous* opioids

Like endorphins ( ENDOgeneous morPHINe), not exogenous morphine that you can buy at your local corner drug dealer.

They also increase negative feelings towards outgroups. I’m pretty annoyed if this is starting to get media play I was going to look into the trump opioids connection for my thesis.

Billy Idol, in his autobiography, calls heroin 'the ultimate relationship drug'.

He meant that a heroin addict is basically in a relationship with the drug, that it's all he/she thinks about, that it's how they spend their time and who they spend it with. Not that it helps you with relationships with other humans.

No, he is specifically talking about it in terms of his new relationship with his girlfriend Perry. That because the relationship is new, they are doing lots of heroin.

OK fair enough, I inferred that, hadn't read the book.

Yikes. So, sample size of 20 - check. Using fMRI as a correlate to brain areas being causative - check. Published in a psych journal - check. I'll just paraphrase Thomas Insel, when he left NIMH for google a few years ago: "You could not read one issue of any psychology or psychiatry journal over the last twenty years, and you would still be as good a psychiatrist as if you had." As an academic psychiatrist, sadly I concur.

As a matter of curiosity, do you see any significant effort in the field to recognize and improve this situation?

I met this guy on the street,

Who said,

Can you spare a $20

Cause I need some social bonding.

Does alcoholism contribute to social bonding?

It does at Alcoholics Anonymous, apparently.

Sure, see Requiem for a Dream or move to San Frisco or Seattle...

Makes sense. When a group undergoes emotional experiences together, social bonding often does take place: the soldier's buddy in his foxhole, the friend who sees you through a hard time (compared to other friends who were distant), sometimes even the group of seniors that you graduated with.

Years later those people will still feel a connection with each other; sometimes veterans who fought against each other will even feel a bond.

And there's bound to be some neurotransmitters and other chemicals involved. And that could include opioids (naturally produced, but maybe externally abused too).

Many party drugs (could) have health benefits. Experiments should be made easier. And maybe more party drugs should be legalized, like cannabis. I'm not a user, but from what I know, XTC - MDMA is less harmful than alcohol. - Not the best of links, but representative of the argument:

Another way to put this would be "social bonding is a natural opiate" .

It's possible that the opiate epidemic is therefore in some way connected to a decaying social fabric in modern American society. People can't get the feelings of social closeness that they need from other humans, so they turn to opiates instead.

Yes. See my comment above (3rd from top), and prior research from the past, 40 years, especially by Jaak Panksepp.

I wouldn't say though that the social fabric is decaying more so now - it seems to me the US had always a fair share or people who lose out on social connection.

The other way of course to relieve the feelings of loneliness and being lost, is gang membership.

I'm not sure what the "uh oh" was about expect maybe the typical neo-puritan refusal to accept that drugs that are likely to be abused have positive effects (no one would bother with a drug that was 100% negative. Very small black market out there for cyanide). The trouble is, obviously, that the negative outweighs the positive.

This is shown in the classic drug warrior error that insisted to kids that one puff of marijuana would ruin their life. When it didn't, and was indeed fun, that kind of destroyed the whole message.

A serious anti-opiod policy maker would greet these studies. Napoleon didn't say "uh oh" over learning about his enemies cannons: he was happy to learn where they were.

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