Oxytocin: Separating Hype from Hope

These days it seems like claims about the hormone oxytocin are everywhere. A quick Google news search of the word “oxytocin” results in recent articles titled everything from “Why do Men Love Breasts? Titillating Theory Explains Release of Neurochemical Oxytocin,” to “Why God Doesn’t Go Away,” to “Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?” Theories linking oxytocin to a range of pro-social and altruistic behaviors has earned it nicknames such as the “love chemical,” “morale molecule,” and “trust hormone.” But are these names rooted in scientific fact?

The Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “One Molecule for Love, Trust, and Morality?” separates hype from hope by delving into the latest oxytocin research and checking in with experts such as neuroethicist Martha Farah, Ph.D., and neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Ph.D., both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members.

While Farah and Churchland warn of misperceptions brought on by oversimplified reporting, Farah and others also express cautious enthusiasm about the hormone’s potential applications.

“There is a lot of hype out there,” Farah confers. But she is quick to add: “Oxytocin research does deserve the attention it’s been getting, because it represents a beautiful example of how neuroscience can illuminate important aspects of psychology and even what one might call the ‘human experience.’”

Farah is not alone in her cautious enthusiasm about oxytocin. As research on oxytocin has exploded–more than 40 clinical trials are underway investigating oxytocin as a potential treatment for a range of behavioral and psychiatric disorders–some scientists are ringing a warning bell about how little is really known about the brain chemical everyone suddenly seems to love.

Read the briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Missing Oxytocin

Christmas trees are up, menorahs are lit, and “Jingle Bells” and other holiday song favorites will be on an uninterrupted loop on radio stations ’till December 25th–the holiday season is in full throttle. It’s a time of year associated with kindness and generosity, where gifts are given to family and friends, and charitable donations increase dramatically. However, for some, like the notorious miser Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, their greedy ways are unwavering. The lecture I attended last night at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) with Paul Zak, Ph.D., “Greed: Willing to Do Anything,” suggested there could be a neurochemical explanation for Mr. Scrooge’s miserly ways.

Ebenezer Scrooge (http://www.wpclipart.com/fictional_characters/scrooge.png.html)

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Is Oxytocin the Key to Treating Social Deficits in People with Autism?

There are many published studies about the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, from Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland’s work on morality to Ulrike Rimmele’s research into the connection between oxytocin and facial recognition in humans. One promising area, still in the beginning stages, is the use of these hormones to address the social deficits associated with autism.

Oxytocin and vasopressin have been scientifically linked to attachment formation in humans. Larry J. Young, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, has worked at length with voles, studying the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on social relationships, such as those between a mother and her pups or between mates. He spoke about this topic and how he hopes his research can contribute to the treatment of autism yesterday at the Nobel Conference 47: The Brain and Being Human held at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. [To watch the video of the presentation, click here].

Unlike montane voles, which are solitary and promiscuous, prairie voles form strong social bonds with their offspring and their mates. Imaging studies done by Young and his colleagues have shown that distribution of oxytocin and vasopressin differs between these two types of voles, and is likely correlated to the differences in their social behavior.

So how can this information help treat people with autism? People on the autism spectrum tend to suffer from certain social deficits, making it difficult for them to learn important social skills, such as making direct eye contact and identifying social cues and emotions. In current studies, explained Young, researchers are testing oxytocin-based drugs administered intranasally. Thus far they have delivered some positive results; the nose sprays have been shown to increase trust, elongate eye gazes, and enhance memory of familiar faces. That said, Young pointed out that the effects of the drugs don’t last long—they wear off as soon as 45 minutes after drug administration.

Young’s hope is that a drug can be developed that, when paired with behavioral therapy, will enhance social learning in people with autism. He noted that there are currently no approved biologically based drug treatments for social deficits in autism.

A Wall Street Journal article published yesterday also touts the hope that oxytocin studies can lead to treatments for not only autism but also other psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

“[A]s a potential treatment for mental disorders, oxytocin represents ‘a whole new class of pharmaceutical-pro-social compounds,’ said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who conducted some of the earliest work on oxytocin in animals.”

–Ann L. Whitman

What neuroscience can tell us about morality

Last night, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, UC San Diego, spoke to a standing room only audience about morality and the brain as part of the James Arthur lecture series, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History.

A pioneer of neurophilosphy, Churchland’s research combines neurobiology and philosophy to address questions such as where values, social behavior, and morality come from. In her talk, she guided her captivated audience through the evolutionary and biological factors that she believes has led to the formation of societal values.

Churchland attributed values in the deepest sense to the brainstem and limbic system, which are the emotional and motivation systems for homeostasis, survival, and well-being. But the majority of her lecture focused on oxytocin and vasopressin, neuropeptides linked to social behaviors, which are believed to play a critical role in the bonding between mammals.

According to Churchland, high levels of oxytocin in the brain decrease fear, increase trust, decrease arousal, and decrease stress. These feelings lead to attachment and trust, which set the stage for cooperation.

To illustrate her point, she referenced work done by Sue Carter on the montane and prairie voles. While similar in most respects, the montane vole is a promiscuous rodent, while the prairie vole mates for life and practices joint parenting. Compared with their cousins, prairie voles' brains have a high density of oxytocin and vasopressin in areas related to the reward system, noted Churchland.

As a population grows, benefits come from expanding trust relationships, said Churchland. In the human population, institutions that enforce trust-connections have emerged, such as laws and religion. “Society is largely about values,” she said, although people must be cognizant that different cultures can hold different value systems.

While most of her lecture stemmed from a biological base, Churchland warned the audience not to rush to attribute actions to innate nature. She explained that behavior can be changed a lot, depending on what else is going on. To emphasize her point, she ended her lecture with a painfully cute slide of an orangutan and a dog who became unlikely friends in a sanctuary. Although solitary by nature, this orangutan bonded with the dog and the two are now inseparable.

Dr. Churchland will be speaking on the same topic tonight at Columbia University.

–Ann Whitman

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