The brain opioid theory of social attachment: a review of the evidence

In: Behaviour
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  • 1 Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  • | 2 Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
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The psychology of close human relationships is increasingly well understood and our understanding of the neurobiology of the onset of pairbonding behaviour in a range of species has benefited from the use of rodent-based models. However, the human literature has suffered from a lack of focus upon the unique nature of primate social bonds and has so far failed to adequately identify the neurobiological and behavioural mechanisms which maintain these complex, diverse and enduring social networks. One neurobiological mechanism that has been overlooked is the endogenous opioid system. Though less explicitly researched than the more familiar oxytocin/vasopressin system, there is considerable evidence that the opioids play a fundamental role in sociality, especially in the primates. This review summarises our current understanding of the evidence for the role of this system in prosocial behaviour in non-primate mammals, nonhuman primates and humans. An important conclusion is that the opioid system may play a more central role in sociality in primates (including humans) than in other mammalian taxa.

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