Study: Opioid Dependence May Hinder Caring Mechanisms

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Study: Opioid Dependence May Hinder Caregiving Mechanisms

Simply put. opioid dependence is marked by an addiction to prescription painkillers such as oxycodone or street drugs. The dependence includes drug tolerance, and significant withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. It is estimated that over 4 million persons in the United States fit the criteria for opioid addiction.

But how would one go about measuring someone’s caring response for another? One way to start is with children. Cuteness in children is known to trigger our nurturing instincts – that is, we want to take care of them.

It makes sense – we respond to a fundamental attraction to certain people and animals. While many of us would love to care for a puppy or kitten, for example, very few would find baby spiders endearing to nurture.

A new study found that caregiving instincts may be compromised in the opioid dependent – that is, chronic opioid use may hinder one’s ability to feel nurturing toward another. The implications are frightening – do opioid dependence parents, for example, feel less attraction toward their children? Possibly.

And there’s no question that past research into opioid addiction has found association with reduced responses to rewards and dysfunctional parenting. But the new study has taken it one step farther.

Using a concept first identified by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz as Kindchenschema, researchers set out to test the effects of social cognition among the opioid addicted. Moreover, they analyzed the normal human response to the cuteness of babies.

Characteristics typical of “cute” babies include large eyes and foreheads, as well as small chins. Evolution has taught us to unknowingly respond to these characteristics in a way which promotes caregiving. It’s known as “baby schema.”

About the Study

Professors Daniel Langleben, An-Li Wang and a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania speculated that opioid abuse would affect the brain’s response to baby schema.

In the study, 47 opioid dependent participants were measured in their response to a baby schema task, both before and after 10 days of treatment with the opioid blocker naltrexone. Their brain activity was recorded using an fMRI scanner.

Professor Daniel Langleben:

“We found that the brains of people with opioid dependence didn’t respond to the baby schema. When they were given a drug that blocked the effects of opioids, the response became more similar to the healthy people. This may indicate the mechanism underlying problems with social cognition deficits in people who abuse opioids.

In summary, treatment with opioid modulators seems to be changing the brain response to baby schema and may modulate our motivation to care for others.”


I want to qualify this by saying being on painkillers in no way guarantees parental dysfunction or a lack of caring, and I don’t want to imply such. What it does reveal, however, is that our instincts may be compromised, and that is certainly not limited to parenting or caregiving, or opioid drugs.

Some may call it a “dulling of the senses” but from a scientific standpoint, it’s much more complicated than that. These drugs, and others, may directly affect some of our fundamental human instincts, such as caring, empathy, and connection.

Related: Obama Officials to Focus on Heroin, Prescription Drug Abuse


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