Is Oxytocin a Pheromone?

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Pheromones are substances that are released by one animal into the environment that other animals take in through the nose or mouth that "communicate" by changing the physiological state of the second animal (bugs, etc).

Animals have something called the vomero nasal organ that is a primary receptor for pheromones. Humans have this organ, but most scientists think it's vestigial. There is evidence that it is not. For example, women living together in dorms tend to have their periods synchronize. This could be due to keeping similar schedules or living in the same environment. But it could be due to them inhaling molecules of each others' hormones.

Oxytocin is both a brain chemical and a hormone. So it is possible that molecules produced in our bodies could be exhaled and then inhaled by other people.

Whether or not this is true, most things that trigger the oxytocin response (a positive social response to another person) probably come via facial expression, body language and tone of voice.

Here's a scientific paper (pretty readable) that examines the evidence that the human vomeronasal organ may be an organ of human communication.

http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/4/433.full.pdf+html

The author, Michael Meredith of Florida State University, comes down on the side of no. But we continually find out more about the human body and what makes us tick. Scientists have discovered, for example, that what they used to call "junk DNA" -- because they didn't know what it did -- turns out to influence gene expression.

I think a lot of people, including scientists, get squeamish about the idea of humans sniffing each other like, well, animals. To me, the jury is still out.

PHOTO: Mark Watson


Love Everyone?

We tend to think of bonding and love as deep emotions to be shared with a few. This interview about a positive psychologist reminds us that we can get an oxytocin boost almost any time by making a quick, warm connection. From the story:

In her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., suggests that true love isn't just about romance, companionship, or fondness; fundamentally, it springs from something she calls "micromoments of shared positive emotion."


College Settles with Woman Denied Comfort Guinea Pig

4257331059_a2d5f0bd2b_qKendra Velzen received $40,000 from Grand Valley State University because her school refused to let her carry her pet guinea pig everywhere on campus.  The 28-year-oldVelzen suffers from depression and uses a pacemaker. Grand Valley State let her keep her pet in the dorm, but barred it from some places including the cafeteria.

I blogged about Velzen's case when she first brought it. Those of us who depend on pets for comfort tend to be on her side; other people think it's ridiculous or even offensive to have animals around.

The story was picked up by Gawker, a site dedicated to snark. So it's not surprising that it and the comments are pretty mean.

Whether you choose to read the original news article or Gawker could say something about whether you like to be kind or not. Think about it.

 

 


Oxytocin: Too Much of a Good Thing?

BalesThere's been plenty of research showing that when people inhale oxytocin, they tend to have more positive social behavior: trust, generosity, empathy and communication. But if taking one whiff of oxytocin can make you nicer, will taking oxytocin regularly keep you nicer? If you take a bigger dose, will it make you even nicer?

U.C. Davis researchers wanted to find out the long-term effects of taking oxytocin, so they studied prairie voles, the monogamous rodents that first demonstrated the positive effects of this brain chemical.

 The U.C. Davis research team, led by Karen L. Bales, treated a group of 89 male prairie voles with low, medium or high doses of inhaled oxytocin. The medium dose was roughly equivalent to the amount given to human subjects in lab studies.

They began giving the prairie voles one daily dose of oxytocin when they were weaned at 21 days old, and continued to give it to them through day 42, the time they reach sexual maturity.

"We were trying to approximate ages 12 to 17 in humans," Bales told me in an email. Because so many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder are turning to oxytocin products they've bought over the internet in hopes of increasing their kids' sociability, the short-lived voles offer a way to model the possible effects of long-term dosing of an adolescent.

 The study also wanted to look at possible dose-dependent differences: If one dose creates an effect, it doesn't necessarily follow that a different dose will create the same effect. In fact, she cites research showing that in schizophrenic patients, 20 IU of oxytocin increased emotion recognition, while a dose of 10 IU actually decreased it.

There was one troubling result: The male voles treated with low or medium doses of oxytocin were actually less likely to bond with a female -- and this effect lasted two weeks after treatment stopped. That could be equivalent to years in a human life.

 The female voles in the study also seemed to be less interested in mothering.

 Bales thinks that this effect could be attributable to down-regulation of the oxytocin receptors or oxytocin-producing neurons; that is, with external oxytocin flooding the receptors, they might become desensitized, while the oxytocin-producing brain cells might lower their production because it's not needed. It also could be attributable to changes in the vasopressin system, she suggests. Vasopressin is another brain chemical very similar to oxytocin that seems to be more important in male bonding.

 She says, "I originally thought that we would see the most changes with the highest dose of oxytocin, and that would be because of flooding oxytocin receptors and binding to vasopressin receptors.  But since we had the most changes at the lowest dose, that seems less likely.  Males do seem to be especially sensitive to developmental exposure to oxytocin...perhaps because they rely less on it normally?"

 Bales' work is with prairie voles, not people. But so far, what vole research taught us about oxytocin is quite applicable to humans. We think we're so different from this tiny, humble creature. But in fact, the genetic difference between Homo sapiens and other mammals is very small.

 It's not clear how applicable the results of this study might be to older humans, but certainly the body's receptors are constantly in a state of flux, responding to external changes. And it's well known that treatment with a hormone can cause the body to produce less of it.

 Bales plans to do more studies using voles of different ages, and also to look at different lengths of treatment.

 Meanwhile, if you are self-experimenting with oxytocin, it's a good idea to keep your dosing acute: once in a while with plenty of time for your body to go back to its natural state.

 Here's the ref: Bales, K.L. et al. Chronic Intranasal Oxytocin Causes Long-Term Impairments in Partner Preference Formation in Male Prairie Voles. Biological Psychiatry 2012.


Is Oxytocin Really Evil?

3339829858_72c2a17610_mNo, but not all of its effects turn you into an angel of bliss.

Science bloggers had a blast a few weeks ago, caviling at Paul Zak's Moral Molecule thesis, digging up an old study showing that soldiers defending their own troops had elevated levels of oxytocin.

Now, a new study, cleverly named The Herding Hormone, finds that oxytocin makes it more likely we'll conform to our group's standards.

First, men in the study were divided into two groups. Half the study participants inhaled oxytocin and half placebo. Then, they were shown photographs and asked to rate the people's attractiveness. While they were doing the ratings, they were also shown the ratings given by both their group and the other group (in-group and out-group).

Adjusting for various things, those who had inhaled oxytocin were more likely to conform to the ratings of their own group.  

This is not surprising; we humans are social animals. In primitive times, physical survival depended on cooperation and mutual support of the tribe or extended family. Today, while we can maintain a single household and make a living without deep ties, we become physically stressed without affection.

Oxytocin helps us remember who we know and trust. It creates a bond deep enough for two parents to stay together despite toothpaste in the sink, angry words and the sheer drudgery of raising kids. And that deep bond lets mothers and fathers hold their children through the tears, dirty diapers and teen-age years.

So, evidently, it also helps us get along by going along sometimes.

Interestingly, the study was led by Mirre Stallen, who is with the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam. (Zak also comes from the business world.) Business, commerce, industry, etc. are all based on cooperation and collaboration. Sometimes in the workplace, you can't be the squeaky wheel. So, a little oxytocin helps with that.

Lindsay Abrams of The Atlantic has an excellent write-up of the experiment with more detail.

Read more:

Dose Soldiers with Oxytocin

Oxytocin Not Always So Goody-Goody

Oxytocin, Chemical of Connection and Envy

PHOTO: twid


A Contrarian View of Oxytocin

1055569383_7254689907Science blogger and journalist Ed Yong has gotten a lot of attention the past couple of days for complaining that oxytocin isn't a love drug, after all.

Yong points out that studies have shown that oxytocin is also linked to envy and gloating, and it also can increase aggression against individuals outside one's group.

I think in his attempt to be contrarian, he's deliberately understating the many positive effects shown in many studies. For example, he mentiones Jennifer Bartz, who has found that oxytocin's effect is influenced by one's mindset. He doesn't mention that she's also found that oxytocin improved the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to pick up on the emotional content of speech -- effects that lasted more than a week.

Yong writes,

In many ways, oxytocin epitomises what happens when enthusiasm, salesmanship, and optimism runs ahead of evidence and careful experimentation. The true moral of the moral molecule may be that ideas that are too cleanly packaged are probably just fragments.

Oxytocin hype is building, and people are turning to the internet to buy oxytocin products because we are a society in desperate need of better connection. But I wonder why people are so excited (relieved?) to hear that better bonding isn't possible.

PHOTO Bbaunach


Oxytocin: The Goddess Molecule

We're hearing a lot about the Higgs boson particle, aka the god molecule. In a new article in Sun Goddess magazine, I propose that oxytocin is the goddess molecule.

Of course, oxytocin is just as important to men. But we women, likely because of the enhancing effects of estrogen on oxytocin, seem to be more important contributors to an oxytocin-enriched society.

Please check out the article:

Oxytocin: The Goddess Molecule


Elvis: The King of Oxytocin

5255904360_3f942aa811Need an oxytocin rush? Let Elvis Presley get those juices flowing.

Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder characterized by medical problems and developmental disabilities, on the downside, as well as striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music, according to the Williams Syndrome Association.

In a study of 21 people, 13 with Williams Syndrome (WS) and a control, led by Julie R. Korenberg, Ph.D., M.D., University of Utah/USTAR professor, Circuits of the Brain and pediatrics, the people with WS had three times as much oxytocin circulating in their blood as the control group. (Thus, the highly social aspect of the syndrome.)

The researchers drew additional blood several times during the experiment, to measure changes in levels of oxytocin and vasopressin as the participants listened to music. One participant was asked to listen to Elvis' "Love Me Tender." The others listened to tunes of their choice.

According to the University of Utah,

The analyses showed that the oxytocin levels, and to a lesser degree AVP, had not only increased but begun to bounce among WS participants while among those without WS, both the oxytocin and AVP levels remained largely unchanged as they listened to music. Interestingly, the oxytocin level in the woman who’d listened to “Love Me Tender” skyrocketed compared to the levels of participants who listened to different music.

Elvis is the king of that swarmy, dreamy feeling, and evidently, that feeling comes from oxytocin.

I'd bet that neurotypical folks would show a similar increase in oxytocin when listening to Elvis Presley -- or other emotionally stirring music, albeit not such a marked increase. To me, this study validates another of those oxytocin memes that just make intuitive sense, that music that delights us would elevate our oxytocin levels.

Illustration: Luiz Fernando/Sonia Maria


Love My Vagus Nerve

6212291122_666fa9df53_mIf you're a fan of neurochemistry and oxytocin, you probably know about the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight-or-flight type responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calm-and-connection responses.

Marsha Lucas, PhD, wrote an excellent article explaining the polyvagal theory put forth by Stephen Porges, PhD (husband and colleague of Sue Carter, one of the primary oxytocin researchers).

She writes,

His polyvagal theory suggests that there are three circuits (not just two branches), which drive one of three possible responses, depending on how we sense the relative safety, danger, or threat to life in our bodies. ... if the [amygdala's] assessment is that the incoming information indicates that things are safe, a third part of the circuit (the ventral vagus) essentially “turns off” the fight-flight response, and social engagement can happen – a calm state that supports being connected with others. Being in this state allows for better health, growth, and communication.

I've been a fan of the vagus nerve since writing Chemistry of Connection. It's a primary conduit of oxytocin from the brain to the gut and genitals, and it's likely responsible for the connection we feel between food and love. And it may be responsible for that feeling of oneness and connectedness that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "elevation."

Read Marsha's article for an excellent explanation of how the amygdala works and what we can experience when we feel safe. Marsha does not mention oxytocin, but, when she writes, "When the ventral vagus is “on”, we have a greater capacity to really listen, in a tuned-in way, to others," that's the effect of oxytocin traveling along this nerve.

To read more:

The Amazing Vagus Nerve

Let Us Elevate Together

The full article by Marcia Lucas is posted on Lisa Kift's blog.

Photo by eljay


What Is Oxytocin Factor?

People always ask me, "Where can I get some oxytocin?" I always tell them to generate their own. A new product on the market actually contains oxytocin.

Moreover, I have a lot of respect for Bryan Post, the person who developed the product and acts as neutriceutical director for ABC Neutriceuticals.

Bryan Post is a psychologist who does ground-breaking work with families of kids who have severe behavior problems, mostly as the result of early trauma from adoption or spending time in the foster system.

His approach takes into account the dynamics of the whole family, recognizing that a parent's anger or inability to connect can further traumatize the child. Post was himself an adopted and disruptive child. At the Post Institute for Family-Centered Therapy and in workshops around the country, he helps parents learn to provide the brain-shaping experiences their children missed.

I talked to Bryan about how he developed the product, what's in it, how stable it is, whether it's really legal to sell, and why he thinks it's safe. These are all questions you should ask about any supplement or product.

I'm not ready to endorse this product, but if you decide to buy it, here is my affiliate link: https://abcnutri1.infusionsoft.com/go/home/kuchinsk/

I'm afraid my voice in this is a bit warbly (thanks, Skype!) but Bryan's is clear.

Bryan Post 3-23-12ED