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

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