Tag Archives: oxytocin

Oxytocin is not a viable treatment for children and teenagers with autism, after all

New research reports that oxytocin, despite the hopes pinned on it by many, does not produce any signs of helping children with autism improve their social abilities.

Image credits Jesper Sehested / Flickr.

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone, and an important neurotransmitter (brain messenger molecule). It is more commonly known as the ‘love hormone’, is released by the pituitary gland, and seems to play a pivotal part in helping us bond socially and/or with our children. There has also been research that implicated oxytocin in the emergence of autism; the emergence of this disorder seemed to be correlated to a mutation on the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR).

However, this link does not seem to hold up to scrutiny. Despite mixed results in regards to oxytocin’s outcomes in improving social skills in children with autism in previous experiments, new research casts doubt on its potential. Although disappointing, such data will hopefully guide our attention to other, more promising candidate treatments.

Not the one

“There was a great deal of hope this drug would be effective,” said the study’s principal investigator and lead author, Linmarie Sikich, M.D., associate consulting professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. “All of us on the study team were hugely disappointed, but oxytocin does not appear to change social function of people with autism.”

Medically, oxytocin is administered mainly to help induce labor. But we do know that it functions as a neurotransmitter and, due to its effects on the workings of the brain, has been proposed as a treatment for autism. There was some evidence to back up this proposal, but it was inconsequential: some studies found it effective at the task, others reported it showed no benefit. Against this backdrop, Sikich’s team set out to determine whether this hormone could have practical applications in the treatment of the disorder or not.

They worked with 290 children ages 3-17, which they separated into groups based on how severe their autism symptoms were. All children were then randomly assigned to equal-sized groups and received either oxytocin or a placebo, via daily nasal sprays, over a period of 24 weeks.

Each child underwent screenings and assessments of their social abilities at the start of the trial to establish a baseline. These were repeated at the midpoint and end of the trial, to track their progress (i.e. the effectiveness of the oxytocin regimen in improving their symptoms). In addition to these, the researchers and the children’s parents also provided assessments using standard analytic tools for autism.

Overall, the authors explain that the oxytocin was well tolerated by the children and had few to no side effects. That being said, it didn’t produce any meaningful effect in those who received oxytocin over those who were administered a placebo. Given that this is one of the largest studies looking into the effectiveness of the hormone in the treatment of autism, such findings do not bode well for its future as a treatment option.

“Thousands of children with autism spectrum disorder were prescribed intranasal oxytocin before it was adequately tested,” says senior author Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D., of New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University. “Thankfully, our data show that it is safe.”

“Unfortunately, it is no better than placebo when used daily for months. These results indicate that clinicians and families should insist that there is strong evidence for the safety and benefit of new treatments before they are provided to patients in the clinic.”

The team concludes, based on these findings, that there simply isn’t enough evidence of oxytocin having any effect in this role. They add that there’s too little here to even justify further research into its potential for treating autism spectrum disorders and that we should focus on more promising candidates instead.

Autism has taken up a large public interest in the last few years, maybe a decade or so. Personally, I think that part of this effect was caused by fear-mongering misinformation regarding vaccines (the famous ‘vaccines cause autism’ slogan). First off, I’d like to point out that autism itself is not as prevalent as we’ve been led to believe. Statistics do reveal broader trends than we’d be able to see using other means, but it can only be as effective and clear as the data we have on hand.

Still, for those whose loved ones might be on the spectrum, news such as this can definitely feel disheartening. I’d like to remind those of you who may be in such a position that autism is in no way a sentence to a bad life or to being shunned socially. Neurodivergent individuals can and do become valued, respected, and loved members of their social groups and wider societies. Their often unique skill sets and predispositions have been recognized and valued all throughout history.

There are certainly unique challenges that people with autism have to contend with. I have seen this through my own personal experiences with those who fall somewhere on the spectrum. Social skills can definitely be one of those more problematic areas. But I have also seen those who managed to overcome these issues, work around them, or find a way forward that makes them happy even without developing ‘normal’ social skills.

A treatment for autism would definitely be welcomed for those who desire it. But not having such treatment at hand is in no way a cause for despair. If you or someone you care for has to contend with autism, know that it is not a flaw that requires fixing. To be human is to be imperfect, and the measure of our lives is given by how well we can find happiness even through such imperfections.

The paper “Intranasal Oxytocin in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder” has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Voles show care for and comfort distressed mates

A study from Emory University looking into prairie voles’ consoling behaviors provides new evidence in support of animal empathy. The tests had pairs of voles isolated from each other, one being exposed to mild electric shocks, to study how the rodents react to a distressed mate.

Image via phys

Empathy is often thought of as something that requires a lot of brain power to pull off. That’s why until recently, it was believed that only humans, great apes and other large-brained mammals such as elephants or dolphins are capable of showing concern and consolation for their fellows. The Emory University vole study is the first study to identify this type of behavior in voles, and adds to a growing body of evidence for animal empathy.

The team separated pairs of voles from one another and subjected one of each pair to mild footshocks. When reunited, the un-shocked one would lick their partner’s fur sooner and for longer durations than control pairs — which were separated but did not receive any shocks.

It could come down to the rodents’ mating habits; Prairie voles are known for the monogamous, lifelong partnerships they form with their mate to care for their offspring. This consoling behavior was only observed between voles who were familiar with each other, not between strangers. Researchers Larry Young and James Burkett say this demonstrates that the behavior was not simply a reaction to aversive cues.

“Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.”

That’s…That’s actually true.
Image via thebiocheminist

To confirm this, the team also tried blocking oxytocin receptors in the voles’ brains, as this neurotransmitter is associated with empathy and bonding in humans. This stoped the rodents from engaging in any consolation behavior, but didn’t affect their self-grooming behavior.

Their report, published this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reads:

“Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species. We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”

How oxytocin and THC stimulate social interactions

A new study from the University of California looks at the link between the bonding hormone oxytocin and the effect of marijuana in social contexts that improve interpersonal bonding. Their findings offer insight into how the hormone could make social interactions more fulfilling and satisfying by enhancing our natural cannabinoid receptors.

The study, titled ”Endocannabinoid signaling mediates oxytocin-driven social reward” has been published in the journal PNAS.

The hormone Oxytocin.
Image via wikimedia

Oxytocin signals the brain to synthesize anandamide, dubbed the “bliss molecule,” as part of the reward mechanism in the brain — anandamide activates brain receptors that trigger feelings of happiness and motivation. It’s a naturally occurring molecule in the human body, but there’s another substance that links up with these receptors (the endocannabidoid system) with similar results: marijuana‘s THC.

Known as “the body’s own cannabinoid system,” the ECS is involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, memory, and mediates the psihoactive effects of cannabis in the brain. Previous studies have shown that the ECS has a part to play in the regulation of inter-neuron signalling in the nucleus accumbens, the region of the brain that oxytocin acts upon to reward social activities.

When the researchers stimulated the neurons responsible for anandamide production but blocked the effects of the molecule, they found that the effects of oxytocin on this area of the brain were also inhibited — suggesting that anandamide is the vector by which oxytocin strengthens social behavior in the brain.

To test this hypothesis, they administered drugs that prevent anandamide deterioration in mice, that showed increased enjoyment in social activities, spending much more time with other mice than the animals that were treated with a placebo. The team speculates that THC might also have a similar effect on the brain, promoting social interactions and heightening our enjoyment of such activities.

This is the first study to display the effect of oxytocin and marijuana-like neurotransmitters on humans  social interactions. The findings could help scientists delve into the functional mechanisms of oxytocin and allow them to better understand social-impairing conditions such as autism, and even help them develop new treatments to tackle the symptoms of autism.


Love Hormone might help men lose weight

A study conducted on a small number of men concluded that the “love hormone” oxytocin may reduce appetite, helping men lose weight.

Oxytocin – the so-called love hormone. Image via Nauka.

Oxytocin is a hormone existing only in mammals, produced by the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. Most recently, oxytocin has been linked with sobriety from alcohol intoxication. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone” or the “love hormone”.

This new study gave men oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray to see if it can help them lose weight.

“We are seeing early signs that oxytocin reduces how much food someone eats at a meal and improves the way their body handles blood sugar,” said study lead author Dr. Elizabeth Lawson, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

However, despite the conclusive results of the study, I’d advise maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism, as the research was conducted only on 25 men. The men (12 of which were overweight or obese) had an average age of 27 years; they were asked to self-administer the oxytocin nasal spray one hour before breakfast, and then they were given twice as much food as they ordered.

During the double-blind, controlled, crossover study, the food intake was measured and calories and fat consumption was evaluated. The group was re-tested after two weeks, and the scientists report that people who used the spray significantly reduced their food and calorie intake compared to the control group. Study lead investigator Elizabeth Lawson, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, said:

“We studied the effect of a single dose of oxytocin on food intake and metabolism on healthy men. We are seeing early signs that oxytocin reduces how much food someone eats at a meal and improves the way their body handles blood sugar.”

The research team said that with reduction in calorie and fat intake, oxytocin nasal spray could help in weight loss up to 9 pounds (4 kg) over 12 weeks or 35 pounds (16kg) over a year.  However, it’s quite unlikely that this medication would be used as an effective weight-loss strategy; the monthly cost of administering the spray three times a day would be $275.

Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California,  sees potential.

“From an evolutionary perspective, oxytocin is released during positive social interactions — when we are around others who care about us. This is just when food sharing is likely to occur. If we want to lose weight, having others around us who care about us can help reduce appetite,” he suggested.

But there are some significant caveats with this study; first of all, as mentioned above, the small number of study subjects is an issue, and the results have to be replicated over a larger sample size. Manfred Hallschmid, a neuroendocrinologist with the University of Lubeck in Germany is very skeptical of the results:

“Long-term clinical trials are clearly necessary to answer the question whether oxytocin is effective in reducing body weight and if such an effect might go along with unwanted psychosocial side effects.”

It remains to be seen if further studies confirm the potential role of oxytocin in weight loss.

Scientific Reference: Elizabeth Lawson, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, and director, Interdisciplinary Oxytocin Research Program, neuroendocrine unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Paul Zak, Ph.D., chairman and professor, economics, and founding director, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif.; Manfred Hallschmid, Ph.D., neuroendocrinologist, department of neuroendocrinology, University of Lubeck, Germany; March 8, 2015, presentation, Endocrine Society annual meeting,

drunken rat

Drunken rats in the attic? No problem, sober them up with some oxytocin

The love hormone, oxytocin, was found to neutralize the motor deficiency effects of alcohol in rats, sobering them up. The researchers involved believe that given enough oxytocin, similar sobering effects might be seen in humans as well.

Cuddling the alcohol

drunken rat

Illustration by EMILY COREN.

Known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is one of the few chemicals made in the brain that’s been fortunate enough to reach pop stardom. You can read about it everywhere from scientific journals to dime a dozen gossip rags. But why are people so fascinated with it? Sex, of course. Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus, where it is either released into the blood via the pituitary gland, or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behavior and physiology. The hormone is significantly involved in social interactions, long-term bonding and floods the brain when men or women have orgasms. However, oxytocin is involved in a slew of other functions, mostly unknown to the general public. For instance, oxytocin levels are high under stressful conditions, such as social isolation and unhappy relationships. It’s also heavily involved in reading other people’s emotions and trust.

“When it is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. But when it comes on board during times of high social stress or pain, it may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts,” says  Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, who directs the University of California, Los Angeles, Social Neuroscience Lab, speaking about a research she and colleagues did in 2008.

Among oxytocin’s many effects you can also add sobering drunken rats to the list. This is according to researchers at University of Sydney and the University of Regensburg who infused oxytocin into the brains of rats which were then given alcohol. Like we all know, alcohol severely affects motor functions, but oxytocin inhibits it from reaching key regions of the brain where it makes its intoxicating magic, like the  delta-subunit GABA-A receptors.

“In the rat equivalent of a sobriety test, the rats given alcohol and oxytocin passed with flying colours, while those given alcohol without oxytocin were seriously impaired,” Dr. Michael T. Bowen said.

“Alcohol impairs your coordination by inhibiting the activity of brain regions that provide fine motor control. Oxytocin prevents this effect to the point where we can’t tell from their behaviour that the rats are actually drunk. It’s a truly remarkable effect,” he added.

Scientists knew about oxytocin and alcohol interaction for some time. In the 1980s, studies found that oxytocin can prevent the development of tolerance to alcohol’s sedative and body temperature reducing effects in rodents, and reduce the severity of alcohol withdrawal. This is the first study, however, that shows oxytocin can cause both immediate and long-lasting inhibition of alcohol consumption in rodents. But can these findings ever be translated to humans? If you ever went on a drunken date, then you know oxytocin does little to help with your case of intoxication. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work per se – it’s just that you never had enough oxytocin to trigger sobering from alcohol.

“The first step will be to ensure we have a method of drug delivery for humans that allows sufficient amounts of oxytocin to reach the brain. If we can do that, we suspect that oxytocin could also leave speech and cognition much less impaired after relatively high levels of alcohol consumption,” Dr Bowen said.

Most likely, a more immediate use for a so-called “sobriety pill” would be in aiding reformed alcoholics since the hormone reduces the severity of alcohol withdrawal and promotes behaviour resistant to addiction and relapse. Even if a miracle sobriety pill were developed – the kind that makes you fresh and ready to go even after a long night at the pub – it would only mask the symptoms. The alcohol is still in your body, so no funny business like driving, else you might wind up with a nasty DUI.

“While oxytocin might reduce your level of intoxication, it won’t actually change your blood alcohol level,” Dr Bowen said. “This is because the oxytocin is preventing the alcohol from accessing the sites in the brain that make you intoxicated, it is not causing the alcohol to leave your system any faster.”

Bowen and colleagues are now trying to figure out in what conditions oxytocin could sober up drunken humans the way it does drunken rats. They’re also investigating the pacifying and anti-aggressive effects of oxytocin. Findings appeared in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Key face recognition point data. Photo: endthelie.com

Remembering faces is influenced by genetics. Face recognition gene found

Some people just have the knack of remembering the face of everyone they’ve met in their lives, while others, on the opposite end of the spectrum, have a difficult time  recognizing who they met yesterday. Now, researchers at Emory have identified the oxytocin receptor, a gene known to influence mother-infant bonding and pair bonding in monogamous species, as an influencing factor in human face recognition. The findings could improve treatments and provide new strategies for improving social cognition in several psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorder.

Previously, Emory researchers found the oxytocin receptor is essential for olfactory-based social recognition in rodents. In these early studies, the researchers bred mice with a mutated oxytocin receptor. These mice were found to be incapable of recognizing mice they previously encountered – something  that normal mice take for granted. The findings spurred the scientists, led by Larry Young, professor at the Department of Psychiatry in Emory’s School of Medicine and Emory’s Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN), to investigate whether the same oxytocin receptor gene, or some other gene for that matter, has a major role to play in human social interactions, too.

Remembering faces: hard-wired in your genes

Key face recognition point data. Photo: endthelie.com

Key face recognition point data. Photo: endthelie.com

Young and colleagues studied 198 families with a single autistic child because these families were known to show a wide range of variability in facial recognition skills; two-thirds of the families were from the United Kingdom, and the remainder from Finland. After examining the influence of subtle differences of the oxytocin receptor gene present in the parents, non-autistic siblings and autistic child, the researchers found that a single change in DNA of this receptor had a significant impact on face recognition. With this in mind, the researchers conclude that it is very likely that the oxytocin receptor gene plays a major role in social information processing and becomes disrupted in disorders such as autism.

The implications may stretch farther than this, however. While humans and rodents share the same oxytocin receptor gene, their functions are different: rodents use odors for social recognition and humans use visual facial cues. This suggests an ancient conservation in genetic and neural architectures involved in social information processing that transcends the sensory modalities used from mouse to man.

Findings were reported in a paper published in the journal  Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Brain in Love

The Science of Love and Dating

If you find love and dating confusing, you’ve come to the right place. You see, while love and the intricate dynamics between two people in a relationship might be far from being full understand, if ever, scientists have learned quite a few about how love works – chemically, socially, psychologically and so on. Here are a few things the guys and gals in lab coats have to share:

1. Being in love causes changes to your brain

Brain in Love

Depending on the type of love, MRI studies have shown changes in the activity of 12 different areas of the brain. Interestingly, there are obvious differences between maternal love, passionate love, and unconditional love. These areas of brain activation then result in the release of neurotransmitters and other chemicals, which cause the euphoric sensations we call love.

2. Consider hugging instead of shaking hands


If you’re on a first date, it might be a good idea to give them a hug ‘hello’. While shaking hands might be a little more socially acceptable, hugging has its advantages. Hugging increases the level of social comfort for both of you. It turns out that hugging triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is frequently referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone”.

3. Youthful ladies and bad boys


It’s been shown in studies that men are attracted to traits that suggest youth. Men prefer women with big eyes, shiny hair, and full lips. Bad boys are attractive to women because their high levels of testosterone. This elevated testosterone gives them the alpha-male characteristics that so many women find attractive.

4. Keep your dating profile short

2 girls using computer online

Research has shown that dating profiles should not be longer than 500 words. Profiles that run longer were referred to as “oppressive and pathetic” by profile readers in one study. Some of the most successful dating profiles are just a few sentences long. Don’t give away the farm before you’ve even met. There’s something to be said for being mysterious.

5. Be funny

Man Woman - Laughing

We all like someone with a great sense of humor, and at least one scientific study has shown that the amount of synchronized laughter during conversations was highly predictive of mutual attraction. It is believed that most people unconsciously equate intelligence with humor. Be funny and you’ll be seen as smart.

There are a great deal of places to meet new people. You can try meeting somebody new on dating chat lines, online dating sites and even in internet powered multi player games or … wait for it… outside. So take one step forward and maybe consider some of these 5 tips and add a little science to your romantic life. After all, who knew science could be so romantic?

Nice person

Niceness is in your genes: scientists find pro-social behavior is influenced by genetics

A study performed last year observed that identical twins, who share 100% of the same genetic material and had the same upbringing, expressed a very similar attitude towards civic behavior and care-giving, whilst fraternal twins, who share 50% of their genes and, again, had the same upbringing, did not necessarily share the same pro-social attitude as the identical twins. This caused scientists to claim that there might be some genes that causes people, coupled with a healthy pro-social environment, to be nice.

Nice person University of Buffalo researchers may have found these genes. According to their study, if you possess certain genes which lead to a certain variation of the oxytocin (the love hormone) and vasopressin hormone receptors, then chances are that you’re inherently a nice person. These two hormones are commonly associated with feelings of compassion and empathy, which generally make a person more generous and nicer after they bind to neurons through special molecules called receptors.

The team of scientists, lead by psychologist Michel Poulin, surveyed 711 persons, who were asked various questions destined to assess their degree of niceness, like whether they felt obliged to report crimes, how they feel about paying taxes, whether they engandeged in charitable actions (donating blood, money, social/community servicing etc.), and most importantly what was their view of the world. The subjects had their DNA sampled such that data could be correlated with genetics.

The researchers found that people who view the world as less or not particularly threatning were more likely to be more generous and nice. People who viewed the world as a threatening place, and the people in it as inherently bad, but had the versions of the receptor genes associated with niceness, were also found to be charitable and well intended with those around them.

“The study found that these genes combined with people’s perceptions of the world as a more or less threatening place to predict generosity,” Poulin says.

“Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others — unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness,” he says.

“The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people’s experiences and feelings about the world isn’t surprising,” Poulin says, “because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex.

“So if one of your neighbors seems really generous, caring, civic-minded kind of person, while another seems more selfish, tight-fisted and not as interested in pitching in, their DNA may help explain why one of them is nicer than the other,” he says.

What’s the genetic difference? Well, for oxytoxin, at least, the difference between the inherently nice hormone receptor and the other lies in a single DNA base pair located on the third chromosome – if you have two guanine base pairs (GG) then you get the nice receptor, while if you inherit an adenine base pair (AA or AG) then you get the less nice oxytocin receptor.

Now, the researchers aren’t claiming that these genetic variations are indeed responsible for niceness, however their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, certainly add weight to the claim that genetics make for an important factor.

“We aren’t saying we’ve found the niceness gene,” he said. “But we have found a gene that makes a contribution. What I find so interesting is the fact that it only makes a contribution in the presence of certain feelings people have about the world around them.”

Story source / photo source


Trust or not – you only need 20 seconds

Trust Humans are hot-wired to scan other people in their surroundings, and determine whether their trust worthy or not, all by reading various signals like body language, facial expression etc. – the so called first impression. A team of researchers from UC Berkeley have now conducted a study which claims that some people are genetically predisposed to be trustworthy, and you only need 20 seconds to tell.

“It’s remarkable that complete strangers could pick up on who’s trustworthy, kind or compassionate in 20 seconds when all they saw was a person sitting in a chair listening to someone talk,” said Aleksandr Kogan, lead author of the study and now a postdoctoral student at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. He conducted the study while at UC Berkeley.

For their study, the researchers interviewed two dozen couples, which they asked to share their griefs and sorrows, an important emotional factor meant to test empathy abilities. The participants also had DNA samples collected from them. Each of the participants had to take turns speaking, while the camera was placed only on the person whose turn was to listen.

They then showed this footage to a group of observers, with absolutely no connection to the couples, in the form of a 20 second video clip. The observers where then asked to rate which seemed most trustworthy, kind and compassionate. What the researchers found was that the highest rated persons also showed a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype. Oxytocin is best known for its roles in sexual reproduction, in particular during and after childbirth. Also known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, bonding and romantic love, among other functions. The more you have it, the more social aware and emphatic you are.

“People can’t see genes, so there has to be something going on that is signaling these genetic differences to the strangers,” Kogan said. “What we found is that the people who had two copies of the G version displayed more trustworthy behaviors – more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture. And it was these behaviors that signaled kindness to the strangers.”

This research holds a particular importance for people who are innately social unaware or unsympathetic, as scientists believe gene therapy might be developed. However, at the same time they warn that there isn’t a secret gene that can make a person shine with karisma from birth, instead a combination of factors, both genetic and non-genetic, at play.

“What ultimately makes us kind and cooperative is a mixture of numerous genetic and non-genetic factors. No one gene is doing the trick. Instead, each of these many forces is a thread pulling a person in one direction or another, and the oxytocin receptor gene is one of these threads,” Kogan said.

The UC Berkeley researchers’ study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.