The cerebrospinal fluid of first-time parents and that of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder both have high levels of oxytocin, the Times reports. James Leckman of Yale was looking for a neurotransmitter that might play a role in OCD and stumbled upon this similarity.
Leckman suggests that you need to be somewhat obsessive in order to prepare for a new baby and keep it alive.
“The question was,” Leckman says, “what did all the behaviours associated with oxytocin, such as pair-bonding, have to do with OCD? Then I remembered how I behaved when my wife was pregnant with our first child. Every time she got a fever or a cold, I had these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to the baby. I remember my wife cleaning all the time, even moving the refrigerator. And even though I was a really busy medic, I found the time to build a cradle from scratch. I just came up with the idea that [parenting] is a normal, adaptive version of OCD.”
In particular, two variants of OCD — compulsive checking to ensure no harm comes to one’s family and an inordinate desire for cleanliness — are familiar to new parents, Anjana Ahuja writes.
I certainly agree that having total responsibility for keeping a fragile newborn alive would require new levels of resourcefulness and attention to detail. But I don't get why heightened levels of oxytocin would create this obsessive state.
Oxytocin activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that's responsible for lowering blood pressure, counteracting cortisol, the stress hormone, and generally calming you down.
Leckman hasn't published his results. I'd wonder what else was in that cerebrospinal fluid. What about vasopressin, which is more responsible for alertness and responding to threats? What about cortisol, released in preparation for fight or flight? Also, were the samples taken from men or women?