Posted by: Ticktock | April 7, 2008

Separation Anxiety and Addiction Related?

Do you have one of those kids who screams every time he is dropped off with daycare or a babysitter?  Perhaps he has a mutant gene that scientists have isolated.

 The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland has done a study on macaque monkeys that may have recently found a genetic reason for babies who whine for their parents when separated. 

As I understand it, calming pleasurable chemicals called opioids are released when baby macaques are comforted by their mothers.  But 30% of these macaques have a genetic mutation that make their receptors for these opioids more sensitive, which causes their problems with attachment anxiety; they scream and holler for their mommies without stopping, and they cling to their mommies when reunited. 

This same mutation also seems to affect alcaholism in the monkies.  One can imagine that getting drunk is a good way to release the relaxing opioids, and in fact, it has been shown that opioid receptor problems do lead to alcohol abuse.  With this knowledge, I think it might be safe to say that parents of children with high separation anxiety should beware of the biological potential for their children to become addicted later in life.

I would be interested to see a follow-up to this research that tracks alcoholics’ infancy habits, and see if the suggested correlation really exists.  I’ve contacted Christina Barr, the scientist on this research, so maybe I’ll update the info if I hear from her.

See the video explaining the research here…


Christina Barr, one of the scientists on the alcoholism study mentioned in my post above, was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the results.  I’d prefer to quote her directly rather than paraphrase, so that I don’t misinterpret her answers.

Do you feel like there is a strong enough connection between attachment anxiety and alcoholism that parents should be concerned about their infants who have a problem with separation?

There have been reports in the literature of people with various types of attachment disorders being more prone to alcohol problems. I am not a clinician, but I, much like many people in this field, knew that there were these links. Some people out there say that the reason for which people drink is because they didn’t have normal attachment relationships as children. I don’t know if this is the case. After performing this study, what I thought was that maybe there is a link, but that it’s not that the attachment disorder is causing the addiction, but rather, they represent two different “phenotypes” that are dependent on differences in the functioning of this system. Again, I am not a clinician. But those that are clinicians and were involved in this study do believe that this could be the case. Markus Heilig, the senior author, is the person to whom you should speak if you would like to more know about this particular aspect.  I am not a psychologist, but I am a mom.  I just do my best to make my kid feel he has secure relationships.

Do you plan on following up the research with studies on humans and their behaviors as infants?

We are currently performing a genetics study using studies from a human sample. So, yes, this is something in which we are very interested.

Is there any way to calm the baby macaques besides reuniting with their mothers?

These macaques lived in social groups. Which means that, more often than not, if they are crying, other females in the group (or even males) are going to pick them up if mom isn’t available to do so. And that (usually) makes them stop.  This actually happens a lot at this developmental time point in the wild, because that’s when the mother has weaned the infant and is engaging in consortships, etc.  
 Are there any other ways that opioid receptor mutations may affect a person other than attachment and alcoholism?

There are some other ways that these variants could influence physiological and behavioral function. For example, pain sensitivity, endocrine or gastrointestinal function. And even other behaviors, potentially. We are examining some of these now.

Do you think that scientists will be able to do anything about this mutation in the near future?

I don’t think there is necessarily anything you could do or would want to do about the mutation. But, if you know someone has it, and they also have an addictive disorder, it may determine what treatment you use for that individual. Or, if you know that you might have a mutation that would make you more vulnerable to developing problems with alcohol, you might chose to abstain. Of course, this can be the case even with individuals with a family history of alcoholism as well.



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