A recent study conducted by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania gave us a new look at the way the brain of someone addicted to opiates sees their own children.
Over the course of the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 47 people addicted to opiates before and after undergoing treatment, as well as 25 healthy people in order to measure their brain’s responses to images of babies and see whether or not drugs can blunt someone’s natural parenting instincts.
The test subjects were shown several images of different babies while hooked up to the scanner in order to test their brain’s responses. One thing the subjects were not informed of was that the researchers had subtly altered to adjust the baby schema, a term researchers use to describe how a child’s facial features are structured – big eyes, round faces, button nose, etc. – to make our brains register that babies are irresistible and must be taken care of. Some of the photos were altered to exaggerate the cuter elements, while others were altered to diminish their cuteness.
All of this was done to better test the ventral striatum, a key part of the reward pathway in the brain that is activated when exposed to cute babies.
The results of the study showed that the brains of people addicted to opiates produced a noticeably weaker response when shown these pictures compared to the responses of the healthy subjects. However, after the people addicted to opiates received a dose of naltrexone, a drug that inhibits the effects of opioids, their brains produced a response more in line with those of the healthy brains. One of the researchers, Dr. Daniel D. Langleben said that:
“When the participants were given an opioid blocker, their baby schema became more similar to that of healthy people. The data also raised in question whether opioid medications may affect social cognition in general.”
Our knowledge about how opiates affect the ways our brain functions continues to grow, and as one of the first studies of its kind, the work of the researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine helps move us one step closer to a complete understanding. Psychologist and director of the University of Central Florida’s Understanding Young Children and Families laboratory and clinic Dr. Kimberly Renk was not involved in the study, but commented on what the study shows us about a parent’s attachment to their children, and the negative effects opiates can have:
“There are definitely competing interests going on. This finding lends credence that the neurocircuitry is overlapping when it comes to parenting and opioid dependence. That’s an important piece of information.”
According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2009, approximately 9 million children live with at least one parent who abused or was dependent on either an illicit drug or alcohol in the past year, and statistics from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System from 2014 showed that nearly 18 percent of child fatalities were tied to a caregiver that was at risk of drug abuse.
Opiate addiction is incredibly difficult to overcome, and experts argue that empathy and outside help are vital parts of helping these people recover. Dr. Renk commented that:
“Mistreatment of drugs and other substances is probably one of the most difficult things people face. The addiction is just so great it drives everything else out… Most people don’t understand the struggle of dealing with addiction, and people lose sight that the people who have these issues are still human.”
No one should have to face down their addiction alone, and our team of professionals at Schick Shadel Hospital are here to assist you in your journey to recovery. Over the past 80 years, our counter conditioning method has helped 80,000 patients regain control of their lives. Give us a call at (800) 272-8464, or fill out our online form to send us a confidential message.