The Mystery of Oxytocin
What exactly is oxytocin? You may have heard it referred to before as the “love hormone,” since it is commonly associated with good feelings and emotions, but in truth, oxytocin serves as both a complex hormone and neurotransmitter, producing a variety of responses particularly in the brain.
The oxytocin that affects behavior is produced in the brain and spinal cord, specifically their centrally projecting oxytocin neurons, as oxytocin secreted from the pituitary gland cannot re-enter the brain due to the blood-brain barrier. The neurons expressing oxytocin receptors can be found in various regions of the brain such as the amygdala, brainstem, and ventromedial hypothalamus.
Since the 1970s, various studies have recorded how oxytocin affects social interaction in different species. Oxytocin has been shown to influence monogamous pair bond formation in voles, mother-infant bonding in sheep, and trust in humans. Thus, the molecule has earned a reputation as a “cuddle” hormone capable of improving social interaction, which has resulted in some clinicians to try to use it in order to treat certain psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. However, since the early trials have had mixed results, scientists are currently striving to obtain a better understanding of how oxytocin works in the brain.
More recent studies have shown that oxytocin suppresses inhibitory neurons (which reduce neural activity), thereby allowing excitatory cells to respond more strongly and reliably. As a result of improved signal transmission, oxytocin appears to overall enhance the brain’s response to socially relevant stimuli. In addition, oxytocin has been shown to work along with the serotonin neurotransmitter to increase inhibition in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in the reward circuit.
Although scientists have begun to realize the importance of oxytocin in analyzing social information, more research must be done in regards to how the molecule helps the brain to process social stimuli and how it affects various neural circuits before it can effectively be used along with behavioral therapies to treat psychiatric conditions.
~ Nathaniel Meshberg
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