Oxytocin: the social hormone is still experimental treatment

Imperial, California - The hormone oxytocin has been dubbed the “love” or “trust” hormone because it’s believed to facilitate bonding, trust and attachment. But the role and function of oxytocin isn’t straightforward. The May issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter reviews what’s known about this social hormone.

Oxytocin is part of a suite of brain chemicals that coordinate social function. For example, oxytocin facilitates bonding between males and females, and mothers and offspring. It helps with interpretation of social cues, allowing people to quickly assess facial expressions, making friend- or foe-type judgments. It also plays a role in the ways people respond to stress by promoting a calming, anti-anxiety effect.

The amount of oxytocin in the body is only part of its potential to have an effect. Many other factors are involved, too. Oxytocin must attach to receptors throughout the body; receptor density and location appear to vary from person to person. Genetic makeup may influence the scope of oxytocin receptors in the body.

Context even appears to be important when considering the effects of oxytocin. In one review of research, some studies showed oxytocin to have a pro-social effect and other studies showed no pro-social effect. About 21 percent of the studies showed oxytocin to have an antisocial effect. Researchers don’t fully understand these results, but it’s possible that oxytocin’s ability to increase attention to social cues may be beneficial in more familiar situations. It may have a less-social effect in a setting of competition, unfamiliarity or uncertainty.

With so many unknowns, it’s too soon to consider using oxytocin for anything but experimental therapies. Recent research using a nasal spray that delivered oxytocin to the brain indicated that oxytocin might benefit patients with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, a certain type of dementia, and a borderline personality in which people are extra sensitive to perceived social threats. Theoretical uses of oxytocin include treating depression, anxiety disorders, psychiatric disorders and irritable bowel syndrome.

Researchers have seen that positive social interaction appears to stimulate the oxytocin system. That interaction can vary from hugs and support from loved ones to eye contact with beloved dogs. Researchers speculate that this effect accounts in part for why healthy social relationships are important contributors to overall health and well-being.

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