“High-Touch” Mothering Protects Lab Animals from Drug Abuse

“High-Touch” Mothering Protects Lab Animals from Drug Abuse

Nurturing mothers may protect their offspring from drug abuse, according to a new study from Duke University, in conjunction with the University of the Adelaide in Australia.

The research team worked with two groups of baby laboratory rats. The first group was removed from their mothers for 15-minute intervals throughout the day. When they returned, the mothers showed nurturing behaviors, such as grooming and cleaning their pups. The control group of baby rats was never separated from their mothers. Then both groups were exposed to morphine at two-month intervals, and then placed in two-room cages. One room had morphine and the other did not. The ones that had received the extra nurturing from their mothers or what the researchers called “high touch, mothering” did not prefer the room containing morphine, although the other group did.

The scientists also found that the brains of the rats who had experienced extra nurturing had four times the amounts of a certain chemical called interleukin-10 than the rats who had not had extra mothering. The higher amounts of the chemical protected them from drug cravings. Interleukin-10 or IL-10 is a molecule in the brain’s immune system.

“Morphine activates the glial cells of the brain to produce inflammatory molecules which signal a reward center of the brain, contributing to addiction,” said Dr. Mark Hutchinson, a lead author of the study. “But IL-10 works against that inflammation and reward. It completely knocks out the drug-seeking behavior. The more IL-10 produced in the brain, the less likely morphine causes an increase in craving or relapse weeks after initially being exposed to the drug.”

The chemical reduces cravings for the drug, but does not reduce its effect on the brain.

“Genetic modification created by the mothering did not change the initial rewarding effect of morphine,” said another co-author, Dr. Staci Bilbo of Duke University. “It altered the craving for the reward, much later on.”

This research team was also able to prove the effect of IL-10 after they administer an artificial version to a group of control rats. The rats who got artificial IL-10 also had reduce cravings for the drug.

Dr. Bilbo said that the team wanted to do further research on the long-term effects of maternal stress on the brain’s immune system.

Dr. Hutchinson called the results of the new study “exciting.”

“We have shown that a drug that targets brain immune cells is also able to protect against drug cravings, providing a new way to treat drug addiction,” he said.

This study appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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