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November 2006
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Sex Is the Best Medicine

Well, okay, sometimes there's nothing like an antibiotic.

This article from lists all the ways that sex is really good for you. The list specifically references oxytocin only once:

Pain relief: Immediately before orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin surge to five times their normal level. This, in turn, releases endorphins, which alleviate the pain of everything from headaches to arthritis to even migraines. In women, sex also prompts production of estrogen, which can reduce the pain of PMS.

However, several of the other benefits also are linked to oxytocin, which is released during stroking, emotional and physical intimacy and orgasm.

There's a reduced risk of heart disease, and oxytocin counteracts the heart-harmful effects of stress hormones. Researchers found that people who had sex once or twice a week had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, which boosts the immune system. But oxytocin also is central to healing and cellular repair.

The physiological advantages only accrue if you're having sex in a way that precludes contracting a sexually transmitted disease, the article warns.

More Evidence Against Epidurals

I think of as business news, but they reported today on a new study linking epidural anesthetic during labor to later problems with breastfeeding.

The author of the latest study said that the effect on breastfeeding should be considered an adverse drug reaction. From the article:

Women who receive an epidural during childbirth are more likely to have breast-feeding problems in the first week and to stop breast-feeding before the end of six months than women who don't receive an epidural, an Australian study says.

The Adoption Dilemma

This very honest account of a couple's adoption decisions is heart-breaking as well as inspiring. Rapid City (Iowa) Journal editor Mike LeFort and his wife adopted two children from a Russian orphanage, and LeFort doesn't pull any punches when he describes how they chose between two little girls.

The LeForts had planned to adopt a two-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy, and he describes the odd duality of being intelectually prepared for adoption, and then having to make the physical and emotional connection.

Surreal wouldn’t describe that Tuesday morning in a Siberian baby home, the morning in which two Russian caregivers brought out two little strangers and walked them over to us and said, pointing at my wife and I:

“Mama. Papa.”

They bonded easily with the little boy, but not with the girl.

She kept us at a distance in our visits thus far, preferring to play on the other side of the room or sit on a rocking horse and stare forward. She was apprehensive, didn’t want to be touched, and we weren’t so sure she was ready for us ... or needed us.

We knew that it was unfair to judge a 2-year-old on just a couple visits; the children are put into a very unfamiliar environment. Their surrogate parents — the group caregivers — leave them with two total strangers who speak an unknown language and are examining their every move, photographing, videotaping ...

No, it’s not fair to the child to expect them to “perform” to our liking, but parents are expected to make a decision in a matter of hours, and it’s a lifelong decision, and it must feel right.

The LeForts decided not to adopt her. The agency located another little girl who was at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome, but who was also "a delightful, intelligent, engaged strawberry blonde-haired bundle of curiosity." This little girl became their new daughter and the boy's new sister.

LeFort is clear that these decisions had to be made with too little information, and he knows that either or both of these children may be at risk for reactive attachment disorder or other problems.

Putting this in the frame of the oxytocin response and brain development, if, as is likely, either of these children did not receive cuddling, gazing and mirroring behavior as they nursed,  their brains may not release the oxytocin pulses that normally occur when we're physically close to another person. Without these oxytocin pulses, people don't feel bonded to another, they don't feel trust, they don't feel safe.

LeFort's moving story also shows how the way we respond to our earliest experiences can determine the course of our lives.

Of course, that first little girl, aloof and apprehensive, needed them. But the way she had dealt with not having a mother was to try to not need one. She needed them desperately.

The way these orphanage visits are handled is similar to the "strange situation" test that psychologists use to determine a child's attachment style, that is, what she's learned to expect from other people. This little girl became what they call "avoidant." She learned that other people would hurt her, either actively or by rejecting her.

I don't blame the LeForts. Parenting is above all an emotional task. They were right to make the choice they did, and he was brave to write so openly about the experience. 

They could only adopt two kids  -- and there will always be a withdrawn and desperate child left alone in the corner.

Talking about "The Female Brain"

The New York Times magazine published a brief interview with Louann Brizendine, the University of San Francisco neuropsychiatrist who wrote the somewhat controversial book "The Female Brain."

Brizendine is officially recanting her statement that women use many times more words in conversation than men, something that was debunked. Now, she says that women have more "communication events."

While a lot of people loved the book because what she wrote felt true, feminists hated the way her book reinforced gender stereotypes. For a smart and witty rundown of the feminist response, see Amanda Marcotte on Pandagon.

But Brizendine makes some feminist points herself.

If women have superior verbal skills, why have they been subservient to men in almost all societies?

Because of pregnancy. Before birth control, in the 1700s and 1800s, middle-class women were pregnant between 17 and 22 times in their lifetimes. All these eons upon eons, while Socrates and all these guys were sitting around thinking up solutions to problems, women were feeding hungry mouths and wiping smelly behinds.

Love Me Like a Vole

I found this interesting nugget in a story from last year reporting on the research of Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown. Fisher, author of "Why We Love," and the team scanned the brains of 17 people who said they were intensely in love.

When people looked at photos of their beloveds, it was the reward systems of their brains that were activated -- not the emotional center or lust system. The researchers think this indicates that romantic love is more of a motivational state designed to capture the prize of love, rather than an emotion itself.

This explains why we're so willing to ditch responsibilities and blow off friends and family when we're newly in love.

“Humans have evolved three distinct but interrelated brain systems for mating and reproduction – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment to a long term partner,” Fisher said, “and our results suggest how feelings of romantic love might change into feelings of attachment. Our results support what people have always assumed – that romantic love is one of the most powerful of all human experiences. It is definitely more powerful than the sex drive.”

Fisher  says the study also shows continuity between human romantic love and attraction in other animals.

"Other scientists,” she said, “have reported that expressions of attraction in a female prairie vole are associated with a 50% increase in dopamine activity in a brain region related to regions where we found activity.  These and other data indicate that all mammals may feel attraction to specific partners, and that some of the same brain systems are involved.”

The bonding effects of oxytocin have been clearly demonstrated in the cuddly and monogamous prairie vole, leading to intriguing extrapolations to human monogamy. This is another data point showing that these extrapolations may not be so far-fetched.

Prairie Voles and Me (and You)

The fascinating experiments with oxytocin and prairie voles seem to have uncovered clues to the mysteries of human bonding. Thomas Insel, Larry Young, Sue Carter and others have been able to turn monogamy on and off in these little rodents by injecting oxytocin into certain parts of their brains.

The idea that a peptide in the brain could be the source of the sweetest experience we humans know -- love -- has fired our imaginations and inspired hope among those of us who can't find love.

When we can't connect with others, we feel that there's something wrong with us; we're different from those happy coupled people. Maybe all it would take is a little whiff of oxytocin to carry us into the land of the loving, we think.

Skeptics  point out that the human brain and human behavior are far more complex than those of the roly-poly voles. Extrapolating the oxytocin findings to humans is a big stretch, they say.

Yet, animals have been used for decades to study disease and test drugs. Yesterday, at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, a panel on the development of psychotropic drugs said that continued skepticism of results from animal models for certain disorders was one of the factors impeding progress on novel treatments for mental illness.

According to the ACNP press release,  Dr. Bryan Roth, Professor of Pharmacology at UNC Chapel Hill and Director of the NIMH Psychoactive Drug Screening Program at the National Institutes of Health, presented results of his analysis of animal studies.

Roth’s investigation also showed that results from research animal models were often discarded, as there remained a high level of skepticism about whether or not animal models are useful in evaluating drug efficacy in psychiatric diseases.  Roth was surprised by his own findings: “When reviewing this data, we found that animal models were actually quite good at predicting results in human subjects.”   

Also at this conference, Eric Hollander and Jennifer Bartz reported that oxytocin had reduced some of the symptoms of autism in adults. See "Oxytocin Therapy for Autism Gets Closer," and also "A Whiff of Oxytocin for Autism." 

Oxytocin Therapy for Autism Gets Closer

This press release from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting is, to my knowledge, the first official, public announcement if something that oxytocin researchers have been saying among themselves for a long time: Oxytocin may prove to be a very helpful therapy for symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

At the conference, Eric Hollander and Jennifer Bartz of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence presented the results of their studies administering oxytocin to adults with autism spectrum disorder. They administered litocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, over a four-hour period and watched for signs of repetitive behavior, one of the symptoms of the disorder.

According to the press release,

"Studies with animals have found that oxytocin plays a role in a variety of behaviors, including parent-child and adult-to-adult pair bonding, social memory, social cognition, anxiety reduction and repetitive behaviors," explained Dr. Bartz. "However," adds Dr. Hollander, "we have only recently considered that administration of oxytocin can have behavioral effects. Autism is a particularly ripe neuropsychiatric disorder for studying this approach because it presents with the types of symptoms that have been found to be associated with the oxytocin system."

Study participants showed a significant decrease in repetitive behavior during the four hours. They also did better at picking up on the emotional tone of recorded speech. People receiving pitocin were compared to others receiving only distilled water; two weeks later, the groups were switched.

Interestingly, those who received oxytocin the first week retained their improvement in assigning emotional meaning to the recorded speech even when they were tested again two weeks later after receiving the placebo. This is important because the effects of administered oxytocin are considered not to last more than a few minutes.

Now, Hollander and Bartz are doing a new study administering oxytocin via a nasal spray over a six-week period.

More on Dr. Keroack's Theories of Oxytocin

The San Diego Union Tribune has interesting background on where Eric Keroack, president Bush's appointee to handle the government's birth control programs for low-income women, got the information he uses to preach abstinence.

In  a nutshell, Dr. Keroack teaches that premarital sex can interfere with a woman's ability to bond in marriage.

Dana Wilkie of Copley News Service tracked down Rebecca Turner, a psychology professor at San Francisco's Alliant International University whose paper found its way into a treatise Keroack wrote for the Abstinence Clearinghouse. According to Wilkie, Turner found that:

When women were asked to recall memories about close relationships, whether familial or romantic, those with a tendency to be anxious about such relationships had lower oxytocin increases than those who were married, living together or dating.

Turner was shocked and dismayed to find that her research was being misrepresented, she told Wilkie.

But here's the kicker: No matter what the level of oxytocin in women who were anxious about close relationships, Turner's paper found that oxytocin activity was “completely unrelated” to the number of previous sexual partners.

Understanding that finding doesn't require a course in logic; a simple ability to read will do. Still, Keroack somehow made the leap that sex with multiple partners inhibits the brain's ability to respond to oxytocin, and therefore the ability to bond.

During a follow-up study three years later, Turner found no links between oxytocin levels and emotional conditions, but that was after Keroack's paper came out.

Just to point out how different studies may contradict each other, let me remind yothat I recently reported on a study by Donatella Marazziti and a team at the University of Pisa that found anxious lovers to have higher levels of oxytocin. You might also want to read my interview with behavioral neuroscientist Jill Schneider, who analyzes the science behind Keroack's statements.

Mind Reading: the Ultimate Empathy?

Five scientists at Germany's Rostock University found that administering 24 IU of oxytocin significantly improved male subjects' ability to recognize other people's emotional states. They gave their paper the provocative title "Oxytocin Improves 'Mind-Reading' in Humans."

They make it clear they're not really talking about telepathy: "Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region."

But that title is attention-getting. Nothing wrong with that.