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Oxytocin Prevents Cortisol Damage

A team from Sue Carter's lab showed that daily doses of oxytocin can prevent the cardiovascular damage caused by loneliness.

Yes, loneliness isn't only psychologically painful. It leads to chronic elevated levels of cortisol that damage the heart and raise blood pressure.

In a study announced today, Angela J. Grippo, C. Sue Carter and Stephen W. Porges, all with the Department of Psychiatry and Brain-Body Center at University of Illinois at Chicago, isolated adult female prairie voles for four weeks; the control group of females was housed with a female sibling.

These highly social beasts usually live within the family unit until they mate. Once they mate, they form their own monogamous family unit (although they may copulate occasionally with voles other than their mates). Isolation is really hard on these animals, just as it is on humans. Prairie voles also have similar patterns of receptors for oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine to humans; it's likely that they provide a good model for human social behavior.

The researchers gave the voles either saline solution or oxytocin daily for the last two weeks. After the four-week period, each animal was put in the stressful situation of meeting an unfamiliar vole.

For the isolated voles, oxytocin improved the general regulation of the heart and lowered their stress response to the unfamiliar animal; the control group didn't show responses to the external oxytocin.

According to the researchers,

These findings suggest that oxytocin can prevent damaging cardiac changes in adult female prairie voles exposed to social isolation.

Before you run for your oxytocin inhaler, let's consider what this means. What they did in this study was to replace the oxytocin that would have been naturally generated by the voles as they huddled with their sisters. (Huddling is the non-anthropomorphic term researchers use for cuddling-type behavior.) The isolated voles couldn't cuddle; an exogenous dose of oxytocin therefore was needed to keep their cortisol down and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system.

If you were an astronaut, or in an arctic research lab, it might be a great idea to take oxytocin. But our bodies are designed to do this naturally. Nurture your own oxytocin response. If people are too much, petting a dog is a great way to get the oxytocin flowing.

See also: My Dog Really Loves Me, Inside the Loneliness Lab

Sing Up That Oxytocin

The FurdLog points out that singing in a group raises oxytocin levels. He links to an LA Times article.

Researchers at the University of Stockholm found this effect. See:

Grape, C., Sandgren, M., Hansson, L.O., Ericson, M., and Theorell, T., Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson. (Integrative physiological and behavioral science 2003 Jan-Mar; 38(1):65-74)

Book Review: The Connected Child

Karyn Purvis, David Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine have written a handbook for parents of at-risk kids that's vitally needed. With the rise in international adoptions and adoptions of kids in foster care has come a mostly unacknowledged crisis. Unprepared and unsupported families are finding themselves unprepared for the task of parenting children with severe emotional problems.

The Connected Child
helps parents put some of their therapeutic techniques into practice; more important, it helps them understand their kids in a new way.

Dr. Purvis is the director of Texas Christian University's Institute of Child Development; Dr. Cross is associate director of the institute and a TCU psychology professor. They treat kids with attachment and other behavioral disorders, and they run a summer camp for kids.

The book explains to parents how their assumptions of normal and acceptable behavior may be completely foreign to their children. Not being touched, not having enough to eat, not having toys or stimulation can create a worldview that's totally out of synch with the parents.

That's why setting rules for behavior or other cognitive approaches may not work with these kids. When parents understand that so-called bad behavior comes from fear or self-protection, they can find strategies that address the underlying fear and thereby change behavior.

For example, stealing or hoarding food is common among children from orphanages. They had no choices about when or what they could eat, and often didn't get enough to eat. Instead of demanding that the behavior stop, or that kids hew to mealtimes, the authors offer techniques to maintain a healthy, regular diet while increasing feelings of security about food.

For example, if a child asks for an energy bar a few minutes before mealtime, instead of saying, "No, we'll be eating in ten minutes," they advise giving her the bar and letting her choose whether to keep it in her pocket or by her plate to eat after dinner. Another option is letting the child keep a basket with healthy snacks in her room that she can eat whenever she wants.

Even sending a kid to her room for a time-out can hurt more than it helps, they write. If a child already feels cut off from the family, this isolation seems to reinforce that belief. Instead of dealing out consequences for misbehavior that may seem arbitrary and unrelated to the misdeed, Purvis, Cross and Sunshine illustrate how to help a child understand the real consequences of his behavior. For example, if a kid mistreats a dog, parents are advised to sit down with him and brainstorm the negative consequences of the behavior, such as, "If I hit the dog, it will run away from me." Next, they should make a list of positive consequences that might occur if the dog is treated kindly, such as, "It will like me."

They write,

"Adopted and foster children deserve deep compassion and respect for what they may have endured before they were welcomed into your home. Some of these little ones have survived ordeals that defy the imagination. … the difficult history of these children means that you, as a caretaker, have to work harder to understand and address their unique deficits and make a conscious effort to help them learn the skills they need at home with a caring family."

Parents need to respond to acting out, tantrums and other dysfunctional behavior with love and understanding. Over and over, the book helps parents understand the roots of misbehavior, so that they can respond with love instead of anger.

At-risk kids need to be told directly and simply what's expected of them, according to Purvis and Cross. Parents should identify specific behaviors or values they want to enable, and name them, for example, "asking with respect." If a child asks for something demandingly, the parent says, "Is that asking with respect? Can you ask me with respect?" Throughout, the book provides clear strategies and scripts for handling a wide variety of problems and behaviors.

Finally, The Connected Child includes a chapter called "Healing Yourself to Heal Your Child." Without judgment and with much compassion, the authors point out how much any child, and especially a traumatized child, needs to feel secure and loved by her parents. If a parent hasn't dealt with his or her own grief, anger or emotional dissociation, it will be difficult for that child to heal. If the child does begin to open up, it may actually make her parents uncomfortable.

They offer some advice for such parents, which tends to be on the cognitive side, such as reflecting on their own attachment styles and practicing identifying and articulating their own feelings. Of course, this isn't always so easy, and parents with attachment issues may benefit more from the same kinds of experiential therapy that kids get.

In fact, guiding a child with an attachment disorder toward healing could be exactly the kind of experience that could help a parent heal -- as long as it's done consciously and carefully. The Connected Child is a wonderful guide.

For background on the work of Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross, see this article from the Texas Christian University magazine.

Thoughts From a Labor/Delivery Nurse

A delivery room nurse who calls herself AtYourCervix responded to the new book, Born in the USA: How a Broken Maternity System Must Be Fixed to Put Women and Children First by Marsden Wagner with her own righteous anger.

Wagner, the former director of Women's and Children's Health at the World Health Organization, exposes the hyper-medicalized, doctors-first U.S. birthing system that puts mothers and babies at risk. AtYourCervix says her hospital follows a lot of these harmful practices.

Just read what she says.

Inherited Anger: How Emotion Begins in the Body

We've all experienced being royally angry; sometimes, the anger seems all out of proportion to others.

"I don't understand why you're so mad." That just makes me madder.

"I can't help it. It's just the way I feel."

Our feelings seem sacrosanct. They're intensely real and must be acknowledged -- and maybe soothed -- by everyone around us. They seem to rise logically and inevitably from circumstances.

One thing I struggle with as I'm writing my book (Love Chemistry, all about oxytocin) is defining emotion in the first place. I'm not alone.

At the Seven Dimensions of Emotion Conference last weekend, it was clear that presenters were not speaking about the same thing when they used the word "love" or "anger."

I'm defining emotion as a physiological state. We may enter a particular state, such as anger or love, in response to external stimuli: My friend says something mean, or she encourages me. They can also begin internally, when something we don't consciously notice triggers a pattern, or when we think about something that raises emotions.

In either case, after the physiological response, the prefrontal cortex, the thinking, planning part of the brain, names the emotion (sometimes) and explains it: Ooh, I'm pissed off. She shouldn't have said that. Ah, she's so wonderful.

But the cortex, in its determination to find meaning in everything, sometimes leads us astray. New information about that famous Appalachian feud between the Hatfields and McCoys shows just how wrong it can go.

The Hatfields and McCoys are famous in American history for having the longest-running, most intense inter-family feud. See Wikipedia's entry for more information. Let's just say they hated and killed each other for a hundred years.

It turns out that the McCoys are plagued by Von Hippel-Lindau disease, a genetic disease that causes, among other things, tumors on the adrenal gland. According to the Associated Press,

Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease, which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other “fight or flight” stress hormones.

...James Reynolds, said of the McCoys: “It don’t take much to set them off. They’ve got a pretty good temper.

“Before the surgery, Winnter, when we would discipline her, she’d squeeze her fists together and get real angry and start hollering back at us, screaming and crying,” he said.

You don't need to have Von Hippel-Lindau to have a hyperactive stress response. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland are together known as the HPA axis, or the stress axis, because they respond to stress by initiating the fight-or-flight response. How reactive the HPA axis is is determined by pre- and post-natal experience, through, probably, the first two years of life. Abuse and trauma -- possibly even the trauma of being born via cesarian -- can set the HPA axis to keep the body in a perpetual fear or rage state.

Understanding how this response is generated below our consciousness is the first step in learning to regulate anger and fear so that we don't automatically project it onto others. Would this understanding have been enough to cool it between the Hatfields and McCoys?

Oxytocin for Headache

A patent application for using oxytocin to treat various forms of severe headaches was published on March 8 2007.

According to the application,

... Approximately 240 million people have migraine attacks each year, ... [while] in developed countries, tension type or "stress" headaches are estimated to affect two-thirds of all adult males and over 80% of adult females. Less well known is the prevalence of chronic daily headaches although the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one adult in 20 has a headache every or nearly every day. Trigeminal neuralgia is not a common disorder but the pain associated with trigeminal neuralgia attacks has been described as among the most severe known to mankind.

The application covers the use of oxytocin alone or in combination with analgesics or other compounds, and the inventors are considering the widest variety of methods for administration that I've seen.

Some aspects of the invention include methods wherein the pharmaceutical composition is administered in a formulation selected from a group comprising a powder, a liquid, a gel, a film, an ointment, a suspension, a cream or a bioadhesive. Some aspects of the invention include methods wherein the pharmaceutical composition further comprises a protease inhibitor, an absorption enhancer, a vasoconstrictor or combinations thereof.

One interesting method for delivery of the drug is eye drops, which presumably could put the medication closer to the site of the headache.

The inventors are David C. Yeomans and Martin S. Angst, both pf whom are associate professors of anesthesiology at Stanford School of Medicine. William H. Frey II is on the faculty of the graduate program in neuroscience at University of Minnesota; I'm not finding definitive information on the final inventor, Daniel I. Jacobs.

A Rising Tide of Pain

Our children are getting sicker. In 2001 a group of experts on child development and health surveyed the state of America's children. The results were frightening: One of every four adolescents in the U.S. is at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. According to the study, 21 percent of children aged nine to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder; 20 percent of students reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year. The report concluded that this generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than its parents' generation was.

The report by the Commission on Children at Risk, 2003, called Hardwired to Connect, was cosponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American values. The Commission for Children at Risk is a panel of 33 doctors, neuroscientists, researchers and youth services professionals.

The report found rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit and conduct disorders, suicide and other serious mental, emotional or behavioral problems among children and adolescents. Since the 1950s, death rates from disease or injury have fallen by about 50 percent among youth -- while the homicide rates rose by more than 130 percent. Suicide rates rose by nearly 140 percent. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among young people in the United States.

While medicine -- antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and other such -- is improving, the report found that we have a bias against recognizing that parts of the problems are caused by society and parenting itself.

The report looked at the latest findings from neuroscience and accepts the idea that we are biologically primed to connect with other people. But how we connect with them makes all the difference. Our brains are designed to develop in response to communication with another brain in a process called limbic resonance. This relationship, this limbic resonance, can facilitate growth development and health. But it can thwart it, too, twisting development and pushing the child down a path of lifelong pain, psychiatric disorder, and isolation.

Although oxytocin researchers are leery of applying their findings to humans, the commission had no such fear. The report makes the case for the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in bonding. It describes the way neurochemicals including dopamine, prolactin, endogenous opioid peptides, as well as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, help trigger parental care, which in turn helps to trigger the release of more attachment hormones, in a virtuous circle that creates the bond we know as love.

The report says, "The human child is talked into talking and loved into loving." It points out that the drive for connection with other people can help guide a child's willingness to behave in response to the parents' wishes.
Steve Suomi of the National Institutes of Health did studies of rhesus monkeys showing that the inherited risks of anxiety, aggression, impulsivity, and alcohol usage could be mitigated by a family environment. On the other hand, a negative family environment can trigger a kid's potential for depression, violence or substance abuse into active behavior.

At adolescence there's another period of brain growth maturation and remodeling which will extend into the third decade of life. At this time of change and transition, there's increased risk-taking and novelty seeking, while friends become more important than the family. There are alterations in levels of activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in parts of the adolescent brain, which can lead to what the report calls a reward deficiency. While traditional culture cultures mobilize to define and help adolescents accept social standards of sexuality and strength, shaping them to grow in ways that will be pro-social, our culture has lost that. We have no rites of passage or rituals to guide and fortify children as they pass into adolescence and adulthood.

It's up to parents to clean up their own issues and take responsibility for helping shape their kids' brains and their lives, helping them succeed not only at sports and academics, but at loving.