“The human reward system has a high density of μ-opioid receptors, which have an important role in affiliation and attachment.”

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the human opioid system may mediate social motivation by enhancing the salience and reward appraisal of the most valuable stimuli, while inhibiting ‘wanting’ of less valuable social cues.

In rodents, μ-opioid (MOR) neurotransmission can increase both hedonic value (‘liking’) and motivational salience (‘wanting’) of rewards.

When several rewards are available, MOR agonism increases and antagonism decreases preference specifically for the most valuable option…MOR stimulation enhanced sexual ‘wanting’ of only estrous, but not nonestrous, females.  We predicted that antagonism of the human opioid system would decrease, while MOR agonism would increase ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ specifically for the evolutionarily most valuable option, namely attractive opposite sex faces.

Our results offer the first evidence that pharmacological manipulation of the human MOR system affects both aesthetic evaluation of and motivation for viewing opposite-sex faces. In line with findings from rodent literature, the effects of the MOR manipulations were strongest for the most valuable stimuli, that is, the most beautiful women.

Morphine increased and naltrexone decreased men’s ‘liking’ of these faces. We also observed an increase in ‘wanting’ behavior after morphine relative to naltrexone treatment, indicating that manipulation of the opioid system affected participants’ motivation to expend effort.

Specifically, activation of the opioid reward system with morphine not only increased ‘wanting’ key-press behavior to keep viewing the beautiful faces but also increased motivation to avoid viewing the least attractive faces.

The two components of reward, hedonic evaluation (´liking´) and motivational salience (´wanting´) were previously shown to partially dissociate when men viewed female faces of varying attractiveness levels, and when males and females viewed images of infants.

The current study revealed an opioid-related increase in motivation to avoid the least attractive female faces, which was not mirrored by changes in reported attractiveness of these faces.

For the most beautiful faces, however, the MOR manipulations affected ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ similarly and in the expected directions.

Together, these findings suggest that the human opioid system may mediate social motivation by enhancing the salience and reward appraisal of the most valuable stimuli, while inhibiting ‘wanting’ of less valuable social cues.

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