We know that addiction is a family disease because of its negative effects on family relationships. But a new study reported by The New York Times suggests that parents who use opioids might actually experience suppressed parental instincts in the brain. The findings suggest that there is a neurochemical reason behind the common-sense knowledge that severe drug abuse can result in neglect of those we love the most.
How did the researchers determine whether opioids suppress natural instincts to nurture one’s children? It might sound strange, but they actually measured subjects’ responses to looking at cute baby pictures. The researchers looked at a part of the brain that is activated when one sees certain infant facial features. That brain activity has been shown to correspond to a motivation to nurture or provide care.
Responses to the cute baby photos were measured before and after opioid drug treatment was given, and the results confirmed our intuition: it appears that the nurturing response is muted in an opioid-dependent brain. So, what’s the takeaway?
For parents who use opioids, there is hope
The study was limited to 47 men and women, and according to the Times it was “the first to look at the effects of opioid dependence and how its treatment affects social cognition.” So it might seem premature to draw hard conclusions, but it does confirm two things about addiction. For one, addiction is a brain disease, with effects on brain function that can be measured. But also, addiction can be successfully treated! Just take a look at the study again: after the test subjects were given an opioid blocker, their parental instinct response returned to normal, healthy levels.
It’s important to focus on that second aspect. Many people get caught up in stigmatizing addicted parents without providing an alternative vision for what their lives could look like after treatment. While there’s often more work to be done repairing damage to family relationships and rebuilding trust, it’s a huge first step to be able to feel the motivation to provide and care for loved ones again.
But are parents who use opioids getting the message? If more addicted parents knew that getting treatment for addiction could change the way they feel about loved ones, they might feel even more motivated to seek a life in recovery. Getting this message out is crucial to helping families recover from the family disease of opioid addiction.