Oxytocin is a pretty serious drug. The hormone is most well-known for its uses during labor – it is naturally released in large doses during labor and is also administered on-site as a way to begin or speed up the process. The hormone is also associated with trust and bonding. It is thought to enhance the bond between a mother and her child. It is also thought to increase pair bonding between romantic partners. In an interesting study, men in monogamous relationships kept more distance between themselves and attractive women after being dosed with Oxytocin. Single men did not.
A recent study looks more specifically at how oxytocin impacts the brain, and the findings are fascinating. Not surprisingly, researchers found that increased levels of oxytocin can serve to curb feeling and behavior associated with depression and anxiety. The more startling discovery was how this drug impacts brain structures. Specifically, the study found that the dendric maturation of new neurons was enhanced by oxytocin. They also found that the hormone promotes the growth of new cells in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Increased neurogenesis in this region is associated with better spatial memory and may involve memory creation. Some antidepressants are also associated with increased cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus.
What does this mean? According to the study’s abstract: “The present findings reveal that oxytocin not only enhances cell proliferation, but also promotes the development of the new neurons which is associated with the induction of positive emotional and social behaviors. The results also suggest that oxytocin may be a potential therapeutic agent for treatment of emotional and social dysfunction”.
In short, we are one step closer to understanding the physical basis of our complex social behaviors. Once we understand them, we will be in a much better position to regulate them. Check mate for science.