Oxytocin Has a Dark Side
Oxytocin makes new mothers coo and couples want to cuddle. But it isn’t all peaches and cream since this hormone can also make hurt last longer and be more intense.
The scientific community has long known that oxytocin is linked to both sexual orgasm and romantic love. It is also tied to well-being and social bonding. It has a role in starting labor contractions and assists mother bond with their babies as well as breast-feed them.
Animal research has shown that oxytocin may even boost the males desire for monogamy by keeping the male focused on his mate. But new research has found that in mice, oxytocin also plays a fundamental role in intensifying negative emotional memories.
Certain structures in the brain are activated by oxytocin during stressful or negative social situations may make the memories of the experience last well past the event itself. These negative situations could be the result of bullying or being tormented by a boss at work. The researchers found that oxytocin could trigger anxiety and fear in the future.
Researchers at Northwestern University reported their findings online in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The researchers put mice in various settings where they experienced aggression or fear from other mice. The researchers measured the varied responses from mice with extra oxytocin receptors in comparison to mice with normal receptors.
The scientists found that the lateral septum is the region of the brain that is responsible for these effects. The lateral septum has the highest levels of oxytocin in the brain. This region also has high levels of oxytocin receptors across all species, whether mice or humans.
This research is important because previous research studies suggested that oxytocin could be useful in treating depression, anxiety and even helping people with autism improve their social behaviors. The new study indicates that social environment will have to be a determining factor when considering any treatment using oxytocin.
Many recent studies had focused on the usefulness of this hormone in overcoming social rejection and in fostering trust.
Last month researchers at Concordia University in Canada published a study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study found varied responses to being rejected socially when students were given a fake or real spray dose of the hormone and were placed in conversational settings during which they were given negative responses on an increasing basis and were eventually excluded from the social setting.
Ninety minutes after using the spray, the participants were given questionnaires that asked about their levels of trust and their moods. The students reporting an increase in trust were the ones receiving oxytocin. The group receiving the placebo reported no change in their levels of trust.
The study suggested that the hormone may dampen the “fear circuitry” of the brain and thus promote trust. The hormone also was found to facilitate social-approach behaviors.
On July 17, 2013 an Australian study announced that there was no improvement in autism symptoms in a group of children after using the nasal spray containing oxytocin. Smaller studies had suggested that it might help.
The researchers at the University of New South Wales conducted a clinical trial with 38 boys. The boys were between the ages of seven and sixteen and were all diagnosed with autism. Half were given a placebo spray over four days; the rest an oxytocin spray.
The researchers conducted assessments with the parents before the treatment, three times during the treatments, immediately following the treatment and a final set of assessment three months after the trial. Eye contact, speech, responsiveness, recognition of facial emotions and positive body language were measured.
The study concluded that oxytocin did not significantly improve social interaction skills, emotional recognition, general behavioral adjustment or repetitive behaviors. The researchers speculated that many autistic children may have impaired oxytocin receptors, but the hormone may help the others.
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