A nasal spray of the 'love hormone' oxytocin could combat alcoholism, according to new research.

In experiments, rats that were hooked on booze drank less after a dose of the 'cuddle chemical.' Oxytocin is triggered by bonding behaviour - including sexual intercourse and breastfeeding.

It has already been suggested as a treatment for eating disorders, anxiety and drug addiction.

Now, a study published in the journal PLOS Biology, has found it reduced consumption in alcohol dependent rats.

That could be thanks to oxytocin's effect on the brain's GABA receptors, where alcohol is thought to exert its intoxicating effects.

The findings could lead to the development of a pioneering treatment for alcohol use disorder in humans, say US scientists.

Lead author Dr Brendan Tunstall, of the National Institutes of Health, Maryland, said: "The experiments demonstrated oxytocin administered systemically, intranasally or into the brain blocked excess drinking in alcohol-dependent but not in normal rats."

His team found it worked by boosting signalling of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA). That is a key brain region in the network of neurons damaged by alcohol dependence, said Dr Tunstall.

He said: "Taken together, these results provide evidence that oxytocin likely blocks enhanced drinking by altering CeA GABA transmission.

"These results provide evidence that aberrations in the oxytocin system may underlie alcohol use disorder."

Dr Tunstall added: "Moreover, oxytocin blocked GABA signaling in the CeA. Targeting this system, possibly by intranasal administration, could prove a promising therapy in people who misuse alcohol."

Previous research has shown administering oxytocin can reduce consumption and associated with several drugs of abuse.

It shows promise as a "pharmacological approach to treat drug addiction," said the researchers.

So they decided to find out how it mediates these effects by using an animal model of alcohol dependency.