New Research Examines Connection Between Opioid Addiction And Early Life Adversity

A New Study Relates Opioid Abuse to Childhood Factors

A study published last December in the academic journal Molecular Psychiatry has shed light on the connection between opioid abuse and early life adversity. According to the study, “individuals with history of early life adversity (ELA) are disproportionately prone to opioid addiction.” The study also found that people who have a family history of opioid addiction are more likely to develop opioid addiction.

The surge in opioid-related deaths in America has inspired medical researchers to examine the underlying reasons for the crisis. The December study is highly relevant today because the Opioid Epidemic in the United States continues to claim the lives of more than 100 Americans every day, costing the country an estimated $78.5 billion annually.

What Is Early Life Adversity?

Early life adversity encompasses distressing or traumatic events in a person’s childhood which cause a person to carry destructive thoughts or behaviors into adulthood. Some examples of early life adversity include sexual, mental, or emotional abuse, neglect, lack of affection, parental absence, witnessing domestic violence or drug addiction, the loss of a parent to death, divorce, or incarceration, a parent’s suicide attempts, and parents’ emotional instability or mental illness.

The Impact of Early Life Adversity On Mental and Behavioral Health

For children, early exposure to adversities and family difficulties can create challenges for them as they strive to form healthy relationships as adults. Moreover, such factors can foster problematic attachment styles, leading to dysfunctional relationships later in life. According to psychological experts, children who experience early life adversity are:

  • 8 times more likely to smoke cigarettes
  • 4 times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder
  • 5 times more likely to experience panic attacks
  • 6 times more likely to suffer depression
  • 2 times more likely to become alcoholic
  • 1 times more likely to use drug intravenously

Often, people who struggle with the ongoing effects of trauma abuse drugs and alcohol to cope. Additionally, early life adversity can generate psychological and behavioral dysfunction, such as low self-esteem, promiscuity, aggression, general distrust, and behavioral problems at home, school, and work.

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Early Life Adversity And Opioid Abuse

There is a growing body of research on how the brain becomes vulnerable to opioid addiction. In a recent Science Daily article, researchers from the University of CaliforniaIrvine note that studies on rodents reveal that distressing, unpredictable events can alter the structure of brain circuits in mammals during adolescence.

Both humans and rodents who suffered trauma in adolescence have manifested abnormalities in the maturity of brain circuits which impact brain function. Similarly, rats who endure early life adversity (specifically, limitation in nesting materials), have exhibited opioid addiction-like behaviors. “Our study provided novel insights into potential origins and nature of a reward circuit malfunction in the brain,” said Baram. “Ultimately, we found that conditions during sensitive developmental periods can lead to vulnerability to the addictive effects of opioid drugs, especially in females, which is consistent with the prevalence of ELA in heroin addicted women,” researcher Dr. Tallie Baram explained.

In a world where prescription opioids are widely available and sometimes cause addiction to highly dangerous drugs like heroin, the potential effects of early life adversity on developing children cannot be understated. If you know a child who has suffered some form of childhood trauma, consider connecting them with a professional therapist to help them manage their feelings safely.

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