A recent study suggests that women who experienced moderate or severe abuse in childhood secrete less oxytocin while breastfeeding their own children. Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes emotional bonding. The study included 53 women. They breastfed their newborn children while blood samples were collected from the women via IV. Those women with a history of moderate or severe abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual) or neglect (emotional or physical) had lower measures of oxytocin in their blood during breastfeeding than women with no history or abuse in childhood or a history of mild abuse.
A history of abuse or neglect was more common among women with current depression compared to women with a history of depression or anxiety. Women who had never experienced depression or anxiety were least likely to have a history of abuse or neglect.
The study by Alison Steube and colleagues, presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, suggests that traumatic events that occur during childhood may have long-lasting effects. These experiences may modulate the secretion of oxytocin in adulthood. Low oxytocin has been linked to depression.
Oxytocin, a hormone that promotes emotional bonding, also benefits people having trouble dealing with stress. A new study suggests that giving oxytocin for a week shortly following a traumatic experience reduces the risk that the recipient will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the study by researcher Mirjam van Zuiden and colleagues, people who visited an emergency room following some kind of trauma were randomized to receive either a placebo nasal spray or intranasal oxytocin twice daily for 7.5 days beginning within 12 days after the trauma. The dosage was 40 IU twice daily.
For those participants with severe PTSD symptoms at baseline, repeated oxytocin administration prevented worsening PTSD. The research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
In a new study by Keiho Owada and colleagues, 18 people with autism spectrum disorders had more neutral facial expressions and fewer surprised expressions than 17 typically developing people while interacting socially. Oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding, was delivered to the autism group via a nasal spray for six weeks, and made the faces of the people with autism more expressive. Oxytocin also improved their reciprocity in social interactions and increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, as observed via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The study suggests not only that oxytocin can normalize facial expressions, but also that the counting of facial expressions on videos of social interactions can be used as a measure of social symptoms of autism. The research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
Oxytocin, the hormone that promotes emotional bonding, also regulates a variety of behaviors. Two recent studies suggest that in rats, an injection of oxytocin can prevent drug-seeking behavior.
In the first study, researcher Gary Aston-Jones found that oxytocin reduced the rats’ interest in methamphetamine. The effect was strongest in the rats that started out with the strongest interest in the methamphetamine.
In the second study, researcher Luyi Zhou and colleagues determined that oxytocin also reduced cocaine-seeking behavior in rats. In addition, the oxytocin reversed changes in the brain’s glutamate signaling pathway that were caused by cocaine use.
Both studies, which were presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, suggest that oxytocin is a promising potential treatment for drug addictions.
The hormone oxytocin, best known for creating feelings of love and bonding, may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, since it also reduces anxiety. A study by Saskia B.J. Koch and colleagues that will soon be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology reports that a single intranasal administration of oxytocin (at a dose of 40 IU) reduced anxiety and nervousness more than did placebo among police officers with PTSD.
Oxytocin also improved abnormalities in connectivity of the amygdala. Male participants with PTSD showed reduced connectivity between the right centromedial amygdala and the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex compared to other male participants who had also experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This deficit was corrected in the men with PTSD after they received a dose of oxytocin. Female participants with PTSD showed greater connectivity between the right basolateral amygdala and the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex than female participants who had experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This was also restored to normal following a dose of oxytocin.
These findings suggest that oxytocin can not only reduce subjective feelings of anxiety in people with PTSD, but may also normalize the way fear is expressed in the amygdala.
At a panel at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Andrea Gonzales described her team’s study of mechanisms related to postpartum depression and the bonding hormone oxytocin. In the study of 26 women at eight months postpartum, the team examined whether there were connections between a mother’s levels of oxytocin at baseline and after interacting with her child, her mood symptoms, and whether she was mistreated in childhood.
Those women who scored low on a history of maltreatment in childhood had bigger increases in oxytocin in their blood and saliva after interacting with their children. Those with high trauma scores but low levels of depression also saw big boosts in oxytocin after seeing their children. Those women who had both a history of trauma in childhood and current depressive symptoms did not get as big a boost of oxytocin after interacting with their children.
Gonzales and colleagues concluded that postpartum depression is linked to dysregulation of oxytocin levels, and that a history of trauma in the mother’s childhood can make this worse.
The researchers hope that these findings may make it easier to identify which women are at risk for postpartum depression, and that they may point to possible treatments in the future.
Postpartum depression is a problem for about 13% of mothers in the year after they give birth, and mother-child bonding may be disturbed if a mother is depressed. One way to foster better bonding between a depressed mother and her newborn is to use video feedback. A mother views video of herself interacting with her child while a trained professional helps her identify opportunities for greater physical contact.
Stress can trigger former drug users to begin taking drugs again. In clinical trials, the bonding hormone oxytocin has been found to reduce stress-induced cravings for certain drugs, including alcohol and marijuana. A new study in animals suggests that oxytocin may be able to reduce stress-induced cocaine cravings as well.
Brandon Bentzley and colleagues combined an unpredictable shock to the foot with an alkaloid called yohimbe that comes from a particular tree bark to apply stress to animals who had previously developed a cocaine self-administration habit that had since been extinguished. The combination of the foot shocks and yohimbe brought back robust reinstatement of the animals’ cocaine seeking behaviors, but pretreatment with oxytocin (at doses of 1 mg/kg) prevented this reinstatement.
This research suggests that oxytocin has potential to prevent stress-induced cocaine cravings in people.
Over the past several decades, the practice of giving oxytocin (a hormone that facilitates bonding) to pregnant women to induce labor has become more common, but it comes with several risks to the child. These include increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and cognitive impairment. A new study by Freedman et al. presented at the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders suggests oxytocin may increase the risk of bipolar disorder as well.
In a sample of 19,000 people, there were 94 cases of bipolar disorder, and birth records revealed that an unexpectedly high number of these cases occurred in people whose mothers had received oxytocin to induce labor, regardless of the duration of the pregnancy. Cognition at ages 3 and 5 was impaired on one measure but not another in those children whose mothers received oxytocin. The researchers concluded that maternal oxytocin to induce labor is a significant risk factor for developing bipolar disorder later in life.
Editor’s Note: Oxytocin appears to take its place among other risk factors for bipolar disorder, which include: prematurity, maternal infection, influenza, the bacterial infection toxoplasmosis, higher insolation (a measure of how powerful radiation from the sun is in a given location), childhood adversity, inflammation (as measured by levels of C-reactive protein), heavy marijuana/THC use, and a family history positive for schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or mood disorder, especially bipolar disorder and especially a bilineal history (illness in both parents).
Researcher Josh Woolley and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco have found that intranasal oxytocin (at doses of 40 IU) improved social cognition in patients with schizophrenia when compared with placebo. Oxytocin is a hormone that facilitates social bonding. Social cognition refers to the way we understand what emotions other people are communicating through facial expression, voice, etc.
Interestingly, less complicated aspects of social cognition like recognizing affect and distinguishing between sincerity and sarcasm were not affected by the oxytocin treatment. However, more complex types of social inference (such as decoding whether an actor intended sarcasm versus telling a white lie) were substantially improved. These tasks evaluate “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, and to recognize that another person’s mental state may be different from one’s own. These abilities are sometimes lacking in those with schizophrenia and other disorders, such as autism. Given that these abilities have been related to real world social functioning, Woolley and colleagues suggest that oxytocin could, for example, help these individuals to make more friends.
Now a study by David Feifel of the University of California, San Diego presented at the 65th Annual Scientific Convention of the Society of Biological Psychiatry showed that patients with schizophrenia showed improvement in symptomatology and increases in the recognition of positive facial affect after oxytocin was added to their antipsychotics regimen. Morris Goldman of Northwestern University reported that patients with schizophrenia, who often make mistakes assessing fear on facial emotion recognition tests, described fewer faces as fearful after receiving intranasal oxytocin.
Editors note: These new findings are built on the pioneering preclinical work of Tom Insel. He found marked differences in oxytocin and its receptors in the brains of mountain voles (who are largely asocial) compared to prairie voles (who are highly social and form lifelong bonds with their mates). Although these oxytocin findings have not yet produced a treatment for any psychiatric syndrome, they illustrate the potential of general scientific findings to inform new approaches to human illnesses.