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Disconnected Brains: How isolation fuels opioid addiction - Rachel Wurzman - Part 3

Jul 4

Do you know why I became a neuroscientist? Because I wanted to learn what made me tick.  I've been wanting to use that one in front of an audience for years.

So in graduate school, I studied genetic factors that orchestrate wiring to the striatum during development. And yes, that is my former license plate. For the record, I don't recommend any PhD student get a license plate with their thesis topic printed on it unless they're prepared for their experiments not to work for the next two years. I eventually did figure it out. So my experiments were exploring how Miss wiring in the striatum relates to compulsive behaviors, meaning behaviors that are coerced by uncomfortable urges you can't consciously resist so I was really excited when my mice developed this compulsive behavior where they were rubbing their faces and they couldn't seem to stop even when they were wounding themselves. Okay, excited is the wrong wrong word. I actually felt I felt terrible for them. I thought that they had tics, evidence of striatal Miss wiring, and they weren't compulsive.

But it turned out on further testing, that these mice showed an aversion to interacting and getting to know other unfamiliar mice which was unusual was unexpected. The results implied that the striatum which for sure is involved in compulsive spectrum disorders is also involved in human social connection and our ability to connect not human social connection but our ability to connect.

So I delve deeper into a field called social neuroscience. And that is a newer interdisciplinary field and there I found reports that linked the striatum not just to social anomalies in mice, but also in people as it turns out, the social neurochemistry in the striatum is linked to things you've probably already heard of, like oxytocin, which is that hormone that makes cuddling feel all warm and fuzzy, but it also implicates signaling at opioid receptors. There are naturally occurring opioids in your brain that are deeply linked to social processes. Experiments with Naloxone, which block opioid receptors. Show us just how essential this opioid receptor signaling is to social interaction.

When people are given Naloxone, it's an ingredient in Narcan that reverses opioid overdoses to save lives, but when it's given to Healthy People, it actually interfered with their ability to feel connected to people they already knew and cared about. Okay, so something about not having opioid receptor binding makes it difficult for us to feel the rewards of social interaction. Now for the interest of time, I've necessarily gotten rid of some of the scientific details. But briefly, here's where we're at the effects of social disconnection through opioid receptors, the effects of addictive drugs and the effects of abnormal neural transmission on involuntary movements and compulsive behaviors all converge in the striatum. And the striatum and opioid signalling in it has been deeply linked with loneliness.

When we don't have enough signalling and opioid receptors we can feel alone in a room full of people we care about and love who love us.

Social neuroscientists like Dr. Pat Yotpo at the University of Chicago have discovered that loneliness is very dangerous. Okay, it increases the risk of early death even more than chronic excessive alcohol consumption. And it predisposes people to entire spectrums of physical and mental illnesses. Think of it like this when you're at your hungriest pretty much any food tastes amazing? Right? So similarly, loneliness creates a hunger in the brain, which hyper sensitizes neuro chemically hyper sensitizes our reward system. And social isolation acts through receptors for these naturally occurring opioids and other social neurotransmitters to leave the striatum in a state where its response to things that signal, reward and pleasure is completely  over the top. And in this state of hypersensitivity, our brains signal, deep dissatisfaction. We become restless, irritable, and impulsive. And that's pretty much when I want you to keep the bowl of Halloween chocolate entirely across the room for me because I will eat it all. I will. And that brings up another thing that makes social disconnection so dangerous. If we don't have the ability to connect socially we are so ravenous for our social neuro chemistry to be rebalanced, we're likely to seek relief from anywhere and if that anywhere is opioid painkillers or heroin.

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