Opioids may affect how cute people think babies are, a new small study finds.

In the study, people with an opioid dependence who viewed images of cute babies didn't show any activity in the part of the brain linked to reward.

However, when the same individuals were given medications to block the effects of opioids and then asked to repeat the experiment, the individuals' reward centers lit up, according to the study, presented today (Sept. 19) at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna, Austria.

People's perceptions of cuteness may have effects that go beyond how those individuals feel about babies. Finding little kids to be cute may help motivate someone to care for others, the researchers said. Without this motivation, a person's caretaking abilities may be reduced.

To study how people with an opioid dependency perceive cuteness, the researchers used a series of facial traits called "baby schema." These traits were identified in a 2009 study and include features such as large eyes, big foreheads and small chins. In that study, researchers found that looking at pictures of babies who had these features was linked to an increase in brain activity in the part of the brain associated with reward. [The Science of Adorable: What It Takes to Win #CuteOff]

In addition, seeing the baby schema motivated people to take care of others, the 2009 study found.

The new study included 47 people who were dependent on opioids and who were starting a treatment program. In the study, the people had their brains scanned while they looked at photos of cute babies. The participants viewed the images 10 days before starting treatment, and then again 10 days after starting treatment.  

The findings showed that, initially, the brains of people with opioid dependence didn't respond to the baby schema, Dr. Daniel Langleben, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior author of the study, said in a statement.

However, once the people began their treatment and were given a drug called naltrexone that blocks the effects of opioids, the individuals' brains responded in a way more similar to that of healthy people, Langleben said.

The findings may suggest an explanation for why people with an opioid dependence may have problems with social cognition in general, Langleben said.

The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Originally published on Live Science.

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