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Viagra = More Loving Sex???

Juan kindly forwarded me a link to a CNN story that says, "Viagra Boosts Feel-Good Hormone." Also today, in the Daily Mail, an article explains "HowViagra Makes Men Loving as Well as Lusty."

The Daily Mail says,

Scientists have found that the little blue pill stimulates production of the love hormone oxytocin, which is believed to promote romantic feelings and bonding between couples. ...
The discovery that anti-impotence drugs can also make men love their women more was made by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.

The article goes on to quote lead researcher Meyer Jackson as saying that this is just one tiny piece of the puzzle.

As I wrote last week in Viagra Boosts Oxytocin, the oxytocin release in the mouse brains only took place when the neurons were stimulated directly.

Therefore, it's possible that Viagra could increase the oxytocin release after sex is one were going to take place, but, if a man weren't already inclined to a little snuggle and intimacy after sex, it wouldn't suddenly make him loving.


The Lowdown on Oxytocin and Empathy

In this article for Scientific American online, Jennifer Bartz and Eric Hollander summarize the research on how oxytocin seems to improve empathy, leading with the widely noted "Oxytocin Improves Mind-Reading." (That's a great example of how serious research scientists can make their studies sexy.)

The article has many links to the relevant studies.

Bartz and Hollander are the Mt. Sinai scientists who have been testing oxytocin to reduce the symptoms of autism; Hollander has a patent application on this. And Hollander is working with Nastech to develop an autism drug based on carbetocin, a synthetic oxytocin.

See also:

Love in a Whiff -- and a Revolution in RAD Treatment
Another Oxytocin Patent
Phase 2 Trial of Oxytocin for Autism within 12 Months


Column: Love and Mom's Shaghetti Sauce

I'm still experimenting with the column format. At the same time, I've signed on at Scientific Blogging, a fairly new blog network.

Scientific Blogging, led by Hank Campbell,  is extremely well-done, and getting a lot of interest. It's full of the cool social-media stuff, like the ability to promote stories. I'm really proud to be part of it!

My first column is "Love and Mom's Spaghetti Sauce." And <shameless plug> if you like it, Hank has made it very easy to Digg, Reddit, etc.</shameless plug>


PubMed Uncovered

PubMed is the online, searchable index of articles published in scientific journals. Except it's hard to search.

Jonathan Byron wrote software to automatically search PubMed for studies mentioning herbal and natural remedies, and then turn them into a scannable or searchable list. The result is Shrubmed, and it's great.

You can now click on the Shrubmed link to "oxytocin" and immediately see a list of all the herbs and natural substances that have been studied for their connection to oxytocin, and then click through to the abstracts of the actual studies. This is really going to help me out!

Jonathan says he wrote the code because he needed the tool and it didn't exist. He says Shrubmed is like a sieve for prospecting, making it easier to find some fascinating nuggets among the reams of inconclusive studies.If you want to send him some love, or suggest a new query, comment on the Shrubmed Blog.

Jonathan also writes Aphrodisiology, about, what else? Did you know truffles were an aphrodisiac?

Thanks, Jonathan!


Pondering the Brain

While none of these posts are oxytocin-related, you're probably interested in the brain and how it works if you're reading this.

Encephalon is a blog carnival devoted to the brain/mind. It's a fun collection of blog posts, and the latest one has just published. Blog carnivals are a nice way to uncover new voices and ideas, so have a look.


Some Drugs Boost Oxytocin

A lot of us are looking for ways to get more oxytocin in our lives; specifically, we want to be able to connect to people better. A new study found that the generic version of [a drug used by men] increases the amount of oxytocin released in the brain.

According to a story in WisBusiness, Meyer Jackson, a physiology professor at the the University of Wisconsin's Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, found that treating the pituitary glands of rats with [this drug used to treat a specific malfunction in specialized tissue] increased the amount of oxytocin they released -- but only in response to stimulation. The story says,

Oxytocin release is regulated by an enzyme that acts like a braking system, limiting hormone release by dampening neural excitation of the cells.  This same enzyme, phosphodiesterase type 5, also limits blood flow by contracting the muscles around blood vessels.

In both places, this drug works by blocking this enzyme, essentially releasing the brakes, explains Jackson.  In blood vessels, relaxing smooth muscle increases blood flow, which corrects [***] dysfunction, and in the posterior pituitary, the cells become more responsive.  "The same stimulation will produce more [oxytocin] release."

It's very important to note that oxytocin release wasn't increased across the board. {The drug] doesn't immediately cause an erection; it only increases the amount and duration of distension when there's sexual stimulation. Similarly, this effect in the brain only took place when the researchers tickled the neurons there with electricity.

The interesting question is, would [this drug]increase the bonding effect that takes place after sex?

Oxytocin plays a dual role in the body, traveling through the blood stream and acting on tissues as a hormone, while it's also released into the brain, where it seems to create social memory: the recognition of others as lovers and friends.

It's released into the brain after orgasm, and it's likely that this release is what causes sex and orgasm to bond us together. This would have been an adaptive advantage, because the bond would keep the man around to help protect and care for the baby that might result.

This research focused on the pituitary gland, which stores oxytocin. My understanding is that the pituitary releases oxytocin into the bloodstream, while the hypothalamus, the organ that produces oxytocin, is the one responsible for releasing it into the brain.  So it would be the hypothalamic release that might increase bonding.

At the same time, oxytocin circulating throughout the body promotes rest, relaxation and healing. So, Viagra could increase the health benefits of oxytocin -- and of a great sexual romp.


How Child Therapy Heals

Megan runs her fingers along the collection of dolls and figurines that line the wall of Sally Clark's office. (The child's name and some details have been changed to preserve her privacy.) The five-year-old's parents are separated and divorcing. She worked with Clark,  a therapist in Albany, Calif. who specializes in helping children and adults to heal prenatal, birth and attachment trauma, for eight months when she was two; now she's back with her mom to help her handle this major shake-up.

Megan is a charmer who seems to know she can rely on her mother, casually climbing into her lap or throwing a leg over her as she talks to Clark about her dress. Soon, she goes to the sand tray, a shallow, three-foot-square box, and begins to pick out objects from the hundreds arrayed on five shallow shelves. She places a tiny ceramic aquarium bridge in the center of the sand. "It's land under the bridge, not water," she says. She arranges two pavilions toward the center, and places a paper teepee in the right front corner. Into each houses goes a little dog.

Soon, the tray is full of objects. A Marilyn Monroe figure, leaning over to give a sexy kiss, faces an androgynous doll with boots and a sword. In the back left corner, two black mummy cases represent the mother and grandmother, who died. Behind them, a lighthouse pokes up.

Megan points to a tiny toy. "This dog is lost," she says. "He needs his mommy."

"Can you find someone to take care of him?" asks Clark, providing some direction for the first time.

Megan picks out the figure of a woman holding a swaddled baby, and places it near the dog. It keeps falling over, so Clark moves another piece to hold it up.

Megan doesn’t want to tell a story about the scene she's created. "I'm not good at stories," she says. But she spends a few minutes drawing a picture of a sun, a woman's face with huge grinning teeth, and a little dog in one corner. Finally, she and her mom snuggle in a cushioned, curtained alcove.

There's plenty to interpret in Megan's mise-en-scene. The mummy caskets could represent the death of the marriage; the bridge might stand for this family transition; the teepee seems to represent a safe home, or perhaps the womb itself. In addition to the problem at hand, her parents' impending divorce may also trigger memories of earlier attachment trauma hidden in Megan's right hemisphere. Clark will discuss all this with Megan's mother, and provide some suggestions about how to support the girl through this difficult period. 

But the interpretation is secondary, Clark says. What will help Megan cope is not Clark's insights, but the opportunity she had to communicate in a safe environment. Says Clark, "It's not the interpretation. It's that she expressed herself and was heard."

Clark's work illustrates the way healing takes place below the conscious level.

Babies and children this age generally have the cognitive and verbal skills to understand and talk about the fright and distress of their earliest experiences, which are lodged in the emotional memory of the right hemisphere. But they can express it, and play is a direct channel to that hemisphere.

Clark and Megan are communicating limbic system to limbic system, as Allan Schore, author of "Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self," says. It's the state of limbic resonance, where they're attuned, on the same wavelength. When this happens, Clark's mature nervous system can take charge and let Megan's experience the journey from arousal to fear to calm again.

As Schore explains it, the pairing of traumatic feelings with the context of safety and support gives Clark's patients not just a re-enactment, but an actual new experience, the experience of feeling frightened or angry and being comforted and loved.

To read about a therapy that helps mothers and children bond, read Inside a Circle of Security.


Will Bad Mothering Become the Newest Disorder?

On the Women's Bioethics Blog, Sabrina W wonders whether the growing interest in oxytocin-based drugs could place mothers under medical scrutiny.

The way humans are wired is, labor and natural childbirth releases waves of oxytocin that not only produce contractions that expel the baby and dull pain, but also begin the bonding process between mother and child. Later, mothering helps shape the oxytocin response in the baby's brain.

She writes,

It is often the case that the presence of a "cure" will pathologize any condition that could be treated by it. How long until a mother, or even a woman without children, who "lacks a nurturing personality" will experience social pressure to "correct her deficiency"?

This is reminiscent of early thinking on autism, that it was the mother's fault. So-called "refrigerator mothers," who weren't warm to their children, could damage their kids and create autistic symptoms.

While that theory is out the window, many researchers wonder if the heavy-duty dose of artificial oxytocin routinely given to laboring women could be at fault.


Massage Could Help Autistic Kids

Tina Allen posted an article titled Autistic Children and Oxytocin, suggesting that massage can help kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

She writes,

Given that autistic children have been reported to be opposed to physical contact, it is interesting that many massage therapists, and parents, are finding great success in the use of massage therapy with autistic children.

Research has found that these children show less autistic behavior, are more social and attentive after receiving massage therapy. Regular sensory integration and safe, nurturing touch are beneficial in reducing touch aversion, inattentiveness and withdrawal.

Unfortunately, Allen doesn't offer any studies or information backing up this claim.

Nevertheless, even if it's only anecdotal, it makes sense that massage could help because it probably does encourage the release of oxytocin in the person being massaged. There aren't any studies showing specifically that massage leads to this release, that I know of.

Allen says, "Numerous studies have proven that oxytocin is released in our bodies during, and after, receiving nurturing touch." That, too, has not exactly been proven, but, again, it seems likely. However, this release is not automatic, and, in fact, a disruption in that cause/effect could be the root of some aspects of ASD.

Because of this, massage may not help some kids on the spectrum; some may reject the feelings altogether. Nevertheless, it's something well worth trying, whether parents offer massage themselves, or work with a licensed therapist who specializes in infant and child massage, as Allen does. Allen is a certified infant massage instructor, and head of Little Kidz, an organization that provides information and training.

See also "Baby Massage."


Acupuncture Stimulates Oxytocin

Many of us are interested in how we can boost our natural supply of oxytocin. Oxytocin is essential to the feeling of love and connectedness; it's also essential to our general health.

Oxytocin flowing through our veins helps counteract stress while promoting relaxation and healing. So, there's a connection between love -- and any positive interaction with others -- and good health.

It seems likely that acupuncture, which also aims to promote healing and balance, activates the oxytocin system.

Here is a very interesting study from China showing that in rats, acupuncture releases oxytocin into the central nervous system. (The study is published in Neuropeptides, by the way, a highly respected scientific journal in the U.S.) Thanks to Acupuncture.com.au for posting the information.

In the study, researchers at the Guangdong Bangmin Pharmaceutical Co. found that injecting oxytocin into the brains of rats increased the analgesic effects of acupuncture. Injecting a substance that blocked the effects of oxytocin into their brains, on the other hand, reduced the pain-killing effects of acupuncture.

Therefore, it's likely that acupuncture reduces pain by causing the release of oxytocin in rats -- and, likely, in humans.

We can guess, moreover, that in general, acupuncture causes a release of oxytocin, which calms the brain's anxiety circuits while cooling off the effects of cortisol in the bloodstream.

Update, December 25, 2007: Peter, who administrates Acupuncture.com.au, tells me his partner has successfully brought on labor by using acupuncture to stimulate points that release oxytocin.