The next time you meet a new parent, tell them their baby smells.
Okay, so that’s probably a great way to lose friends – and possibly get punched – so don’t go and actually do it. But new babies really do smell, and it’s not because they need changing.
A new study shows that the smell of newborns triggers a brain response not unlike that of a drug.
Smell and reward
For the study, researchers from the University of Montreal (UM) provided two groups of 15 women with odors of newborn babies while the women underwent brain imaging tests. The first group was made up of women who had given birth three to six weeks before the experiment; the second group consisted of women who’d never given birth.
Brain images showed both groups had similar intense responses to the smell of new babies in the brain’s dopaminergic system of the caudate nucleus, but the researchers discovered the response was much stronger in the brains of women who’d never had babies. The caudate nucleus is a structure located in the center of the brain. “This structure plays a role in reward learning,” said UM lecturer and study co-author Johannes Frasnelli, Ph.D., in a UM press release. “And dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter in the neural reward system.”
This system is a major influence on our behavior. Certain behaviors are rewarded by the release of dopamine, essentially teaching the body to behave in a particular way. However, it’s a double-edged sword: Dopamine release can teach us to do things that help sustain our life, like eating, but many drugs also release dopamine when used, chemically teaching people to continue using drugs, fueling addiction. “This circuit makes us desire certain foods and causes addiction to tobacco and other drugs. Not all odors trigger this reaction. Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, causes this activation,” said Frasnelli.
Dopamine and drugs
To someone with no firsthand experience of addiction, it can be a hard condition to understand. Why don’t people just stop abusing drugs? Why keep going back to them again and again? Is it a bad upbringing? Lousy morals?
It’s neither – addictive drugs work by chemically rewiring the brain into believing it cannot function normally without them. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), most commonly abused drugs affect the same area of the brain the UM researchers studied. However, where experiencing a pleasant smell might only cause the brain to release a trickle of dopamine, many drugs turn that same trickle into a flood.
NIDA reports some abused drugs can cause the brain to release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine released by activities such as sex. This massive release creates the “high” of a drug – a sensation of euphoria that strongly encourages the user to keep using the drug.
As the user continues using the drug, the brain begins to adapt to the increased levels of dopamine in the system by producing less dopamine – or by reducing the number of receptors that receive signals from dopamine. Dopamine begins to lose its usual impact, and some users experience anhedonia – the loss of the ability to experience pleasure in any form – when they aren’t taking drugs, along with withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, users often develop tolerance to the drugs they abuse, requiring them to take more and more of the substance in order to feel the same effects.
The chemical cycle of addiction is hard to break. Addiction requires a lifetime to manage and control, and can be an overwhelming challenge if sought out alone. Sovereign Health of California operates several treatment centers throughout southern California, aimed at meeting the specific needs of patients young and old. We use effective, evidence-based treatment methods to ensure our patients have the best chance at a full recovery, and our alumni services program continues to help our patients once they leave our care. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.