FEB 13, 2024 11:38 AM PST

Socializing with Women Could Support Addiction Recovery in Men

WRITTEN BY: Amielle Moreno

Social interactions are deeply rewarding for many animals, including humans and rodents. These encounters are pleasurable because they trigger the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain, much like drugs do. Interestingly, even in the presence of drugs or other gratifying stimuli, addicted rats often prioritize social contact over their substance of choice. However, this previous research was chiefly conducted with same-sex social interactions, leaving researchers at the National Institute of Health to wonder how powerful opposite-sex interactions are.

Evidence published in The Journal of Neuroscience is leading researchers to suggest that female social interactions are a potent motivator, and prioritizing these connections during addiction recovery could significantly improve rehab for human men.

Understanding Social Reward Systems in Rats: New Research Findings

The study, by lead author Jonathan J. Chow Ph.D., delved into the rewarding nature of opposite-sex social interactions among rats. The researchers observed how a subject rat's behavior and dopamine release varied depending on the sex of a new social companion rat.

Both male and female rats were trained to press a lever that caused a part of their cage wall to move, giving them a chance to see and smell a visiting peer rat through a mesh divider. The researchers varied the sex of the visiting rat and observed how excited rats were to lever press and measured dopamine release from an area of the brain called the striatum--an area responsible for processing rewards and regulating social behaviors.

Previous research suggests that the menstrual cycle influences opposite-sex interactions, particularly among female rats. Therefore, the NIH scientists carefully monitored the mouse menstrual phases, called estrous, of their rat lever pressers and peer visitors.

Interactions with Females Reign Supreme

Male rats exhibited a heightened interest in opposite-sex peers, demonstrating increased lever-pressing frequency and speed, particularly for female companions.

Analysis of dopamine release revealed intriguing patterns. When exposed to female peers, male lever-pressers showed elevated dopamine levels in multiple regions of the striatum. Regardless of the peer's gender, male lever-pressers consistently exhibited higher dopamine release than females.

For female rats, interactions with both male and female peers elicited similar interest and dopamine release.

Previous studies had indicated that female rats demonstrated heightened interest in male companions during their fertile phases. Surprisingly, in this new study, estrous phase of female rats, as lever pressers or peer visitors, did not significantly influence lever-pressing behaviors. Sexual availability was not as important as social interactions for these rats.

Dopamine Release in Social Interactions: Implications for Addiction Recovery

While this might seem like a study about rodent behavior, the authors suggest their findings offer insights into human social dynamics and addiction recovery. They suggest that addiction treatment rehabilitation strategies that feature meetings and workshops that emphasize social engagement may hold particular promise, especially for male individuals in recovery.

This research underscores the power of social interactions and their direct impact on dopamine signaling and reward processing. These findings offer a solid foundation to explore addiction treatment and the broader implications of social isolation on well-being.

Sources: The Journal of Neuroscience, Molecular Psychiatry

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Amielle Moreno earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Emory University and has dedicated her career to science communication, news coverage, and academic writing/editing. She is a published researcher who has branched out to author articles for various science websites. She recently published an original research article detailing her findings on how sensory areas of the brain respond to social sound. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her spinning the latest neuroscience news into comedy gold, hosting her podcast "Miss Behavior Journal Club." This fortnightly humorous podcast features the latest in behavioral research. Her goal in life is to defend and discover scientific truths.
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