If you’re one of the more than 2 million people in the United States with an opioid addiction, you may want to think twice about visiting that new baby everyone is cooing over. After all, your reaction may be startlingly less enthusiastic than expected. According to a recently published study out of Austria’s European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress, opioids affect a person’s perception of cuteness — and it isn’t for the better. In fact, it may help explain why some drug users can buy, sell and consume drugs in the presence of their child without any remorse.
A 2009 study showed that seeing babies with a higher baby schema — a term used to describe “ideal” traits such as large eyes, small chins, and big foreheads — activates a part of the brain called the ventral striatum. This part of the brain is responsible for rewards. It also triggers the desire to take care of others. Researchers wanted to know whether opioid use would dampen this effect.
Scientists at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania examined the brain responses of 47 men and women who were high on opioids. While in the scanner, participants viewed images of babies and the researchers measured the brain’s responses. The scans were then compared to the responses from 25 non-addicted individuals and to the responses of the same people after undergoing a form of drug detox.
Unbeknownst to the participants, the images were altered to adjust their baby schema. In some instances, the babies’ features were exaggerated, which led to larger eyes, rounder faces, and other features, to increase the cute-factor; in other images, the babies’ features were reduced in order to create a less appealing appearance.
By comparison to the brain scans of healthy people, those using opioids produced substantially less favorable responses to the images of the cute babies. However, ten days after receiving naltrexone, an opioid blocker used in drug detox centers, the participants responded in a way much more conducive to a healthy person.
Dr. Daniel D. Langleben, one of the researchers, explained, “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.”
At a time when the abuse of prescription drugs is steadily increasing, this research can have a long-lasting impact. It helps identify whether the neurocircuitry that plays into attachment and bonding can be damaged by opioid use and whether any damage is reversible. Director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Sharon Levy portrayed the study as a “brick in the wall of continuing efforts to understand the brain and the impacts of drug use on the brain. It makes a contribution to refining our understanding.”
While this is a mere stepping stone to greater awareness about the effects of opioid use, it is an important one. After all, a lot of disturbing images have recently surfaced that show opioid users placing their children at risk. In one such video, young mother lies sprawled across a dollar store’s floor as her two-year-old daughter tugs on her to wake. As the toddler cries, the mother is resuscitated by paramedics who use naloxone to reverse the effect of the opioids.
As this recent research shows, opioid use doesn’t just bring a general numbness; the drug also reinforces a disconnect between parents and their children. Fortunately, drug detox appears to help.