Recent research into the hormone oxytocin has yielded helpful insights into several areas of mental health.
Everyone is born with some of this chemical, but each person has a different amount. The first encounter most have with oxytocin is just after birth when the baby rests in its mother’s arms. This moment triggers the release of the chemical sometimes called the “love hormone.” Its presence greatly affects the strength of the parent-child bond.
The system that delivers this chemical continues developing in the child up through the age of three. The system is affected by genetics, gender and environment, including infection, stress, trauma and drug use.
New report flags risks in toddlers
A University of Adelaide study examined prior research linking oxytocin and drug addiction. During their review, investigators found that risk factors could be detected as early as age four.
Since the oxytocin system finishes forming around age three, it could be that less of the hormone is partly responsible for signs of addiction risk. The thinking goes like this: More of the hormone would enhance social bonding and therefore the experienced rewards of human interaction. This would also lower stress and anxiety. By contrast, less oxytocin in the system may leave people less able to experience rewards through social exposure and more susceptible to stress, looking to substances for the pleasure others glean through human connections.
Insufficient oxytocin can heighten the risks of addiction
The power of oxytocin to increase connectedness and wellbeing has been seen as childhood patients with autism or those with schizophrenia show improvement in relating after being given the hormone. In fact, studies show that if people with sufficient oxytocin are given more they can become overly sensitive to others.
The Australian research suggests that young children deprived of sufficient oxytocin levels may be especially vulnerable to forming substance addiction.
Here in America, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 8.7% of kids under 12 had received treatment for alcohol or drug addiction in 2010. While environment probably plays a role in whether or not someone so young becomes involved with drugs, it also appears that they may suffer from a lack of internal protection as well.