Illustration by Dr. Marco Venniro, NIDA IRP
Peer pressure can lead some people to make risky choices, like using drugs. But scientists are discovering that connecting with other people may also create a positive effect; it might even help some people who have problems with drugs.
In a recent animal study involving rats, for instance, many of the rats chose to hang out with other rats in their cages instead of pressing a lever to get more of a drug.
Does this mean that socializing could also help some people avoid using drugs?
Changing the brain
People who use drugs over time can develop a brain disease called addiction.
Addiction changes the brain and can cause a person to seek out drugs even when the person understands that drug use is a bad choice. Someone with an addiction can also return to drug use after not using drugs for a while (this is called a relapse).
All this makes addiction hard to overcome. But the recent animal study suggests that positive social connections, like friendships and healthy family relationships, might undo some of the negative effects caused by drug use.
Socializing might help
Scientists aren’t sure yet how social interactions positively affect the human brain, but some of the most effective treatments for addiction already involve helping the person to create healthy social relationships that don’t involve drug use.
For people with substance use disorders, connecting in a meaningful way with other people—including others who are recovering from the same disorders—seems to help limit the urge to use drugs.
So even though rats’ social needs are different from humans’, this study adds to the evidence that having strong social connections with people who don’t use drugs can be an important part of treatment for addiction.
For people living with addiction, knowing that social connections might help them overcome the disease could bring a lot of hope.
Learn more: What does a healthy relationship look like?