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Stress hormone may reduce heroin craving


Geneva:  The stress hormone cortisol can reduce addictive cravings in some heroin addicts, a new study has found.

A team of researchers led by Marc Walter and Dominique de Quervain from the University of Basel in Switzerland studied the effect of the stress hormone cortisol on the addictive cravings in heroin addicts.

Heroin is a drug with an extremely high dependency potential that stimulates severe cravings in addicts.

In past studies, the researchers had discovered that cortisol diminishes the ability to retrieve memories – intake of the hormone reduced the brain’s ability to remember.

The researchers hypothesised that cortisol also has an inhibitory effect on addiction-related memory and thus on the craving for the addictive substance.

In the study, 29 patients currently undergoing heroin-assisted treatment were given a cortisol tablet or placebo before receiving a dose of heroin.

Administering cortisol to the addicts resulted in a decrease in cravings by an average of 25 per cent when compared to placebo.

Along with other tests, the subjects were asked to rate their cravings on a visual analogue scale (VAS), which is a scale for gauging subjective experiences.

The decrease was seen in patients who were dependent on a relatively low dose of heroin but not in highly-dependent patients.

Whether the inhibitory effect of cortisol on the craving for heroin will also affect addiction-related behaviours of patients in their day-to-day lives is still unclear, researchers said.

“For this reason, we want to examine whether cortisol can help patients reduce their heroin dosage or remain abstinent from heroin for longer,” said Walter, chief physician at the Psychiatric University Clinics (UPK) Basel.

Plans are already underway for further studies, researchers said.

The goal is to determine whether “the inhibitory effect of cortisol on addictive cravings might also have positive implications for nicotine, alcohol or gambling addiction,” said de Quervain, Director of the research platform Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences at the University of Basel.

The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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