This Substance Actually Dulls Parenting Instincts, Study Says

opioids and parenting

A sad and disturbing study from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania shows that opioids appear to dull people’s natural parenting instincts. [1]

In recent months, numerous stories have been in the news concerning children who were left alone with parents or caregivers who had overdosed on prescription opioids or heroin.

For the millions of people who see stories and can’t understand what drives parents to be so negligent, perhaps the findings will offer a little bit of perspective, though they won’t make the stories any easier to digest.

In September, heartbreaking pictures of 2 adults overdosed on heroin in the front of a car with a 4-year-old boy in a car seat in the back went viral when Ohio police released the image to show the public how dire the opioid crisis had become in that state.

And then, earlier this month, authorities found 2 adults dead inside a Pennsylvania home after a 7-year-old told her bus driver she had been trying to wake her parents for more than a day. Three other children were also in the home, ages 5, 3, and 9.

It was the 2nd overdose police had responded to in that single block in less than a day.

I know, this article isn’t a happy one.

What the Study Says About our Brains and Opioids

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 47 men and women before and after they went through treatment for opioid addiction.

During the brain scans, the participants looked at various images of babies while the researchers measured the brain’s response. The participants’ brain scans were compared with the brain responses of 25 ‘healthy’ people.

The participants were not aware that the photos had been manipulated to adjust the “baby schema,” a term which describes the set of facial and other features like round faces and big eyes that make our brains “see” babies as helpless, adorable creatures, and trigger our parental instincts.

In some cases, the researchers adjusted the babies’ features to make them even more irresistible, while in other photos the babies’ faces were altered to make their features ‘smaller and less appealing.’ (Their words, not mine.)

Source: The New York Times

Studies indicate that a higher baby schema activates the region of the ventral striatum section of the brain, a key component of the brain reward pathway. For example, a 2009 study found that just looking at a baby’s face causes the brain to react in a way that triggers parental instincts. [2]

When the participants’ brains were compared to the healthy people’s brains, the brains of the opioid-dependent participants didn’t produce strong responses to the cute baby pictures. [1]

However, once the opioid-dependent individuals received a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opioids, their brains produced a more normal response.

Dr. Daniel D. Langleben, one of the researchers, said:

“When the participants were given an opioid blocker, their baby schema became more similar to that of healthy people.

The data also raised in question whether opioid medications may affect social cognition in general.”

The study is 1 of the first to examine the effects of opioid dependence and how its treatment affects social cognition. The findings were presented in September at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna.

Approximately 9 million children in America lived with at least 1 drug- or alcohol-dependent parent in the previous year, a 2009 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows.

Additionally, statistics provided by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2014 show that 29 states reported that an average of 17.9% of child fatalities were associated with a caregiver who had a risk factor of drug abuse.

A little good news was announced in May, however, when the information firm IMS Health shared that there has been a 12% national decline in opioid prescriptions since 2012.


[1] The New York Times

[2] Global News