Coming on the heels of the infamous ‘heroin’ picture that showed a US grandmother passing out from an apparent heroin overdose -- while her four-year-old grandson sat in the back seat, a new study has found that opioid dependence affects how ‘cute’ we perceive images of children to be.
Fifty-year-old Rhonda Pasek was sentenced to jail last week after officials in Ohio posted the photo, sending shock waves among families across the world.
As cuteness can trigger caregiving motivation, this result indicates that the opioids -- which includes illicit drugs such as heroin as well as medications commonly prescribed for pain -- may have significant effects on our ability to care for others.
“We found that the brains of people with opioid dependence didn’t respond to the baby schema,” said Professor Daniel Langleben from University of Pennsylvania in the US.
Baby schema is a set of visual characteristics typical of human and animal babies, which makes them more adorable or “cute’.
They include such features as large eyes, big foreheads, and small chins, which over evolution we have come to subconsciously recognise as characteristic of infants and inviting caretaking, so much so that we have incorporated these features into dolls, cartoon characters, adverts, and even car design, etc.
In this study, the researchers recruited 47 opioid-dependent adults who were starting treatment with an opioid blocker naltrexone and measured how they responded to the baby schema task while recording their brain activity using an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, before and after 10 days of treatment with naltrexone.
When they were given a drug that blocked the effects of opioids, the response became more similar to the healthy people.
This may indicate the mechanism underlying problems with social cognition deficits in people who abuse opioids, the researchers said.
“In summary, treatment with opioid modulators seems to be changing the brain response to baby schema and may modulate our motivation to care for others,” Langleben said.
“Opioids are some of the most common medications in the world, often taken on a long term basis, so this is something to consider,” Langleben noted.
The findings were presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna, Austria.
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