Opioid addiction is a prevalent disease and is considered an epidemic in America; it is responsible for almost 70% of drug-related deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental illnesses that relate to addiction often have complex interactions between a person’s genetic and environmental factors. The significance of studying the role of social elements in opioid abuse is that these factors can be more controlled than a biological one such as genetics. By understanding controllable social influences, we can come up with more effective treatments that consider individual lifestyle differences.
A study conducted by Eitan et al. (2017) used mice as model organisms to describe interesting findings that connect to human experiences. By altering levels of social interactions and play, the researchers observed varying levels of drug abuse; they did this by providing a choice between a heroin reward and a standard saline reward. Mice in an enriched environment with novel toys and activities were found to avoid consumption of heroin while mice in an environment void of such play were active users. This ties into how human individuals in a routined life with minimal sources of play and activities are more likely to abuse opioids; people who lack social interaction are also more prone to spiral down to addiction.
Figure: Isolated vs Social mice (Eitan et al. 2017)
The study further manipulated social environments in terms of cage mates by accommodating mice in three different social situations; one cage composed of only saline-users, one with only morphine-users, and one with both kinds of mice. The saline mice surrounded by other saline-users continued to consume just that. The morphine-users housed with other morphine mice demonstrated the same dependency of morphine. What’s fascinating is the dynamic observed in the second cage with both kinds of mice; mice with previous morphine use reduced their usage in the presence of their non-morphine cagemates. The researchers concluded that the drug-naïve animals possibly provided some sort of feedback, a form of beneficial interaction, to their drug-exposed cage-mates.
Figure: Mice dependency on morphine in the presence of different cage-mates (Eitan et al. 2017)
This study extrapolates these findings to human interactions and abuse rates. The morphine-only animals likely represent individuals who lack social support from other people because he or she is surrounded by opioid users themselves. Their social network is probably limited by others who are struggling with similar abuse. In contrast, the morphine-induced mice housed with non-morphine users are likely to represent individuals with richer social support systems and social connections with individuals who aren’t opioid users. This rodent model is a great example of the importance of social interactions in the rates of opioid abuse.
“Sending positive vibes and making healthy social connections can go a long way in terms of mental health.”
So what can we do with this information? As the study explained the importance of enriched environments and positive social interactions, it is beneficial to provide such platforms to many young individuals who find themselves on the periphery of opioid abuse. Areas with high drug-abuse prevalence need to incorporate positive after-school activities which will engage teenagers in interaction with supportive people. On a personal level, we can reach out to people we know who might be struggling and give them that support they need; this is true not only in regards to opioid addiction, but also any hardships. Sending positive vibes and making healthy social connections can go a long way in terms of mental health.
Eitan, S., Emery, M. A., Bates, M. . S., & Horrax, C. (2017). Opioid addiction: Who are your real friends? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 83, 697–712.