Brain and Body

Scientists Find an Interesting Link Between Hugs and Weed

December 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Two people hug
Photo credit: Tyler McCulloch/Wikipedia (CC by SA 2.0)

What do the two have in common?

Hugs and weed may have a lot more in common than you might think. How? It has a lot to do with oxytocin, commonly dubbed the hug hormone or the love molecule. Oxytocin plays a big role in interpersonal bonding — some studies suggest that oxytocin could help build the foundations for long-lasting relationships, and in another study with baby macaques, researchers found that spraying the little monkeys with oxytocin promoted positive social interactions with each other.

Marijuana users will insist that weed does the exact same thing — promoting feelings of peace and happiness — but exactly how it has this effect on human behavior has been less clear. Now a new study finds a link between the hug hormone and weed, and it turns out that oxytocin might actually stimulate our own cannabinoid system, in turn making our social interactions more pleasurable.

SEE ALSO: This Psychedelic Drug May Be Released in Our Brains as We Die

The research, from the University of California, Irvine, provides the first link between the oxytocin hug hormone and anandamide, another chemical with a fantastic nickname — “the bliss molecule.” Anandamide was dubbed the bliss molecule because of its role in activating cannabinoid receptors in brain cells to heighten motivation and happiness.

The marijuana-like neurotransmitter (anandamide) is among a class of naturally occurring chemicals in the body called endocannabinoids, according to the press release, and it attaches to the same brain cell receptors and produces similar changes in the brain as THC, marijuana’s active ingredient

To investigate the link, the researchers measured anandamide levels in mice that had either been isolated or allowed to interact with other mice friends. They found that social contact increased the production of anandamide in the brain, which then triggered cannabinoid receptors to reinforce the pleasure of socialization. This positive reinforcement disappeared when the cannabinoid receptors were blocked.

Next, the team looked for a link between anandamide and the hug hormone, oxytocin. Interestingly, they found that blocking anandamide’s effects also blocked the pro-social effects of oxytocin, suggesting that the hug hormone reinforces social behavior by triggering anandamide formation.

This study is the first to show that the marijuana-like neurotransmitter contributes to the reward of being social, and the results might even provide insight on the underlying social impairments for those with autism.

"Our findings open the exciting possibility that drugs that block the degradation of anandamide, which are currently being tested for various anxiety disorders, could give a boost to the brain's own oxytocin and help people with autism socialize more," Daniele Piomelli, UCI’s Louise Turner Arnold Chair in the Neurosciences, said in a press release.

Further exploring THC and oxytocin will hopefully draw more compelling conclusions about the link between the two. But until then, one thing’s for sure: both substances sure seem to fill people up with happy feelings.

SEE ALSO: Study Finds “Skunk” Cannabis Damages White Brain Matter, Induces Psychosis

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