The Benefits of Social Support

Social interaction boosts dopamine.1 Conversely, social exclusion, like learning you haven’t been invited to a party everyone else is going to, hurts because rejection activates the anterior cingulate cortex, the structure that registers physical pain.2

Researchers at Wake Forest University housed 20 male macaque monkeys by themselves while scientists took baseline measurements of their brain activity. Then the monkeys were moved into common housing with four monkeys living together. Over a period of months a hierarchy was established. The dominant monkeys were found to have developed higher numbers of dopamine receptors in their brains’ reward systems than the subservient ones.3

The researchers then introduced cocaine to the monkeys, allowing them to self-administer the drug. The dominant monkeys, those with increased numbers of dopamine receptors, were less likely to do so. “The environmental consequences of those social hierarchies resulted in these changes,” commented Michael Nader, the lead researcher, adding that the changes brought about by the environment could take place relatively rapidly, in this case just three months. “Environmental enrichment…can produce rapid and robust changes in the brain.”4

That social support boosts dopamine validates one of the key insights of AA: group support is crucial. So it isn’t the message of sobriety alone that makes attendance at AA meetings and sponsorship so beneficial to sobriety, it’s also the dopamine boost that results from AA being a “we” program, done with others in community.

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1. NIDA Chief Studies the Brain; Associated Press, Apr. 3, 2006.

2. For Brokenhearted, The Pain Is Real, Scientists Say, Associated Press, Oct. 10, 2003.

3. Monkey Cocaine Study Sheds Light On Drug Addiction, Reuters, January 22, 2002.

4. Monkey Cocaine Study Sheds Light On Drug Addiction, Reuters, January 22, 2002.


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