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Way to Exploit the News!

Oxytocin was all over the news last week, thanks to the latest study from Zurich showing that inhaling oxytocin increased people's willingness to trust while playing economic games. Those who snorted oxytocin were willing to trust again even after the other player shorted them.

This is one of a series of studies in which people in the lab exchange money in a controlled situation; I think it got so much attention because of the juicy word "betrayal" used to describe a player's refusal to play fair. But it should be pointed out that sitting in a lab engaging in a simple interaction is far from true betrayal -- and it's unlikely that inhaling oxytocin would make you trust someone out in the real world who did something truly mean.

At any rate, a new company has gotten onto the oxytocin bandwagon. HBC Protocols, a ten-year-old Los Angeles company that specializes in wellness and nutritional supplements, has released a new product, Oxytocin Formula Homeopathic Product, that does contain oxytocin. They've backed up the product with a very well-produced website.

The product is designed to be put under the tongue, a good place to absorb chemicals and not as unpleasant or potentially damaging to the mucous membranes as inhalation. I'm going to try to find out more information about the product. The fact that it's "homeopathic" makes me wonder how much oxytocin it contains. The label says "oxytocin 2C," as opposed to other ingredients, which are "6X" or so. I assume this is the homeopathic style of describing formulae.

I have no idea whether there's enough of a dose to do anything, or how well the oxytocin solution would hold up. But it shows the keen interest in oxytocin that's out there.

Where Can I Get My Hands on Some Oxytocin?

The latest report about how oxytocin makes people more willing to trust after betrayal really struck a nerve. People really really want to get their hands on this stuff: For everyone who is afraid of being hurt, there are five people who are dying to open up.

Someone wrote to me asking where to get oxytocin; he and his wife are having problems. I wrote about my experience taking oxytocin in 2006, here. This is how I answered:

I performed this experiment on myself a couple of years ago, when it was quite easy to purchase oxytocin over the internet. At the time, searching for oxytocin brought up several paid ads from reputable companies that supply chemicals to researchers, and I was able to purchase with a credit card. I notice that these ads no longer appear, probably because these companies realized that many people ordering the product were consumers.

In any case, when you buy oxytocin this way, it's difficult to handle. It degrades quickly when it's mixed with water, and it's a minuscule amount. I was guided by the blog of a guy who made all sorts of wild experiments with such chemicals that he ordered online.

I don't think it's ethical or wise for me to provide any more details about where or how to buy oxytocin. I believe -- but don't know for sure -- that it's not a controlled substance in the United States; I don't know about in other countries.

Someone wrote me that he had tried the oxytocin spray that had been prescribed for his lactating wife. And a psychiatrist in Canada sometimes prescribes this inhalant for kids with autism. These are called off-label uses: the doctor obtains the drug legally and prescribes it legally, but for a condition that the drug hasn't been approved for.

Several drug companies are working to develop oxytocin-based drugs to treat social phobia and some trials have begun.

All that said, let me propose an alternative: Oxytocin is usually released naturally when we are with another person in a situation where we feel safe. Also when we're stroked, make love and orgasm. However, this brain response seems to be learned after we're born, in the first few years of life -- although the brain continues to grow and change throughout our lives. If you and your wife have "normal" oxytocin responses, it could be a matter of simply making love, making sure that you  move very slowly through her arousal to orgasm. Often, when couples have problems, sex is the first thing to go. But I think that a lack of happy satisfying sex also can lead to relationship problems. I experience this myself in my relationship. Oxytocin makes us calmer and more easy-going, so the partner's bad habits don't bother us as much.

Other things you can try are massaging each other, if you're both able to do so in a soothing way that feels good; getting massages together at a spa or weekend retreat; taking some kind of workshop that has exercises which allow you to go into "limbic resonance," the state in which your bodies are attuned. Attunement likely invokes the oxytocin response.

Update Dec. 6 2008: Because so many people come to my site looking for a place to buy oxytocin, I have decided to post the affiliate ad you see at the top of this post. I am not endorsing this product. However, if, after reading this and others of my posts, you want to buy it, if you buy by clicking on this ad, I'll get paid by the advertiser.

Oxytocin Keeps Us Trusting after Betrayal

Researchers at the University of Zurich, where they did the first experiments with giving humans oxytocin via nasal spray, announced a new study showing that oxytocin makes people more willing to trust again after betrayal.

Their earliest experiment showed that oxytocin reduced activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain thought to make split-second friend-or-foe decisions. And Paul Zak, one of the researchers in that experiment, went on to show that inhaling oxytocin makes people more trusting and more generous.

In the latest experiment, people played the Trust Game, where an investor can give some money to a trustee in the hope that he'll return some. This time, however, they made sure the trustee kept all the money. While the subjects couldn't tell if they'd inhaled oxytocin or placebo, the oxytocin group was more likely to trust in the next round of the game.

Zak points out that women are more susceptible to oxytocin than men, due to estrogen's enhancing its effects, so women might show a stronger effect.

Science News said, "Oxytocin may help people move on after betrayal." World Science put it as, "Spray said to turn people into pushovers. Re­search­ers have iden­ti­fied brain cen­ters acti­vated by be­tray­al of trust—and a way to keep them quiet."

At least some members of the public aren't worried about that. My traffic is up today, thanks to searches for "where to buy oxytocin," I assume in response to the news. (My answer: It's not a controlled substance but it's getting more difficult to buy, no doubt due to non-scientists wanting to try it. I don't provide information about how and where to procure oxytocin.)

Oxytocin May Increase Fertility of Sperm -- in Swine

  Happy piglet 
  Originally uploaded by barto.

Here's an off-the-wall news item -- or maybe not so.

According to the Tumpline Stackyard, a British online publication surfaced by Google News, some pig farmers mix oxytocin in with the semen they use for artificial insemination of their sows. This is an off-label use, that is, veterinarians don't prescribe oxytocin for this. The article gives no details, just that farmers are showing "increasing interest" in the procedure.

Why this may not be quite so loony: A lot of human drugs find new uses through off-label prescriptions, a process in which doctors sort of use their patients as guinea pigs.

I can't think of a reason why oxytocin would increase the insemination rate for a batch of sperm, but molecular biologists might.

New Evidence for Oxytocin Gene Defect in Autism

Because a major characteristic of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a lack of affectionate interactions, many researchers are looking into impairments of the oxytocin system. A team of researchers looked at the genes of a large group of children with autism and found irregularities in the  prolactin gene, and the genes that produce receptors for prolactin and oxytocin. 

According to the press release, the researchers  have registered a possible association between some of the genes identified in animal studies as controlling affiliative behaviors in ASD.” No more details in the release, but the fact that the journal, Biological Psychiatry, issued a press release means they think this is big news.

I think the study may also give weight to the role of oxytocin in human love.

“Genes Controlling Affiliative Behavior as Candidate Genes for Autism” by Carolyn M. Yrigollen, Summer S. Han, Anna Kochetkova, Tammy Babitz, Joseph T. Chang, Fred R. Volkmar, James F. Leckman and Elena L. Grigorenko. The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 63, Issue 10 (May 15, 2008), published by Elsevier.

Romance: Best Enjoyed in the Middle Ages


Last night I was listening to an audio book that mentioned the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, celebrated as an example of romantic love at its finest. Dante, of course, wrote The Inferno. Beatrice was his cousin. He fell in love with her the first time he saw her, when he was nine. They didn't speak to each other until a few years later, and they never had what we would today call any kind of relationship at all. Instead, his love for her was in the mode of "courtly love" possibly "invented" during the Middle Ages.

I've written several times about the problem of mistaking romantic love, which may be evolution's way of making sure a couple stayed focused enough on their relationship to have sex and get pregnant, then keep the baby alive for the first couple of years, with committed love. Romance is fired by dopamine and lowered levels of serotonin, while committed love is fueled by oxytocin. (The theory goes.) Oxytocin produces a more "social" love; the oxytocin bond activates the same brain systems as trust and generosity.

This story from The Independent in the UK, Aspects of Love, illustrates the conflicting definitions we have of love. (Some of the interviewees also state as fact some of the neurochemical bases of emotion that haven't been completely proven yet, as I'm often guilty of doing, such as in the previous paragraph.)

I like what Alain de Bottom says:

One of the things that happened in the modern age was that suddenly people decided that romantic love could be put together with marriage, so the sort of feeling people always had around a lover, an intense romantic passion they thought might last a few months, you could stick that together with what people had always followed which was to get married.

And marriage used to be about "handing on the farm" to the next generation and suddenly it was thought you could have the farm and this great intense romantic relationship. You no longer needed what the aristocracy had suggested you always needed, which was a wife and a mistress, or the other way around if you were a woman. This idea that you can have romantic passion and the practical benefits of keeping a household together – modern society has fallen for this idea and it's making us miserable.

De Bottom is author of Essays in Love, which sounds pretty interesting.

In the Middle Ages and into Dante's time, marriages were arranged, and based on social and economic benefits. People might have had lovers and/or asexual romantic relationships like that of Dante and Beatrice. I don't think we can -- or should -- go back to that, but I wish our culture would learn to celebrate committed love the way we do romance.

The adorable embroidered heart is by Minha lojinha, a wonderful artist.

See also, Sex, Orgasm, Bonding and the Marital Blahs; and Get Over Romance; please, please please?

True Love and Business

I've written several times about the interesting and revolutionary work Paul Zak is doing on oxytocin and its relationship to business and economic exchange. In short, Paul is in the process of proving that the virtues of generosity and trust are crucial for a thriving economy.

MonfriedEarlier this morning, I had on my other hat: technology journalist. Researching Lotame, a company I'll include in a story about targeting online advertising, I came across this in a great blog post from the company's founder, Andy Monfried (right). He's talking about what companies can do to survive during these .. um .. difficult economic times:

9) rely less on email, and more on good old fashion people skills.  email is NOT people skills.

10) give way more love and good vibes than EVER. passion goes a long way in any business, and it's often under utilized - and, overlooked.

That's good advice for anyone in business at any time -- and maybe should go at the top of the list. Meeting face-to-face, looking into another person's eyes, shaking hands and sharing a beverage or a meal provide an opportunity to build trust, based on spurts of oxytocin from the hypothalamus combined with dopamine tickling the brain's reward centers. Trust and love are different points on the same neurochemical spectrum. When you love someone, you want good for them. And Andy is right, that kind of love impels each of you to help the other succeed.

I like the name of his blog, too: You Ain' Gonna Learn What You Don't Want to Know. So true.

Oxytocin Deficit Disorder

Everything that's outside the norm or seems unhealthy is considered a disorder these days. This partly reflects Big Pharma's desire to increase profits by finding new diseases it can treat. Nevertheless, I believe that recognizing some things that used to be considered character flaws or hopeless cases as disorders that might be treatable have benefited millions of people.

Now, instead of being classified as a bad or stupid kid, children who disrupt class and have trouble learning may be given the less pejorative label of ADHD. While how to help them remains controversial, with many people thinking these kids are over-medicated, many others are thankful the drugs are working.

The same thing is true with clinical depression, as well as its cousin, post-partum depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can alter neurochemistry and help many sufferers lead better lives. Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago has shown that the kind of mothering a baby rhesus macaque monkey gets influences the serotonin levels of its brain on into adulthood. Baby rhesus with mean mothers show symptoms of depression.

Evidence is mounting that babies and children who don't get enough or the right kind of nurturing may have abnormal brain development. This can result in an overactive stress response and an under-active oxytocin response. Similarly, some scientists are looking at abnormalities in the oxytocin system as causal factors in autism.

I think the day will come -- in the next three to five years -- when something like "oxytocin deficit disorder" will make its way into the DSM -- and into psychopharmacology. Drugs that introduce an oxytocin-like substance into the body, or increase its production by the hypothalamus or other oxytocin-producing sites, may provide a quicker fix for people who feel they can't connect emotionally with others.

A Paradoxical Reaction to Oxytocin?

A new blog from Alia Macrina Heise identifies a syndrome she calls depressive milk ejection reflex, or D-MER. She defines it thus:

"Depressive Milk Ejection Reflex is a condition that causes a prodromal effect of negative emotions that emerge only before the milk ejection reflex, or letdown, in a lactating mother."

According to her blog, she's the mother of three -- and a lactation counselor. Although breastfeeding is supposed to be a peak experience -- deeply rewarding, sensual and soothing, thanks to oxytocin -- she experienced something quite different.

Go to her blog,, to read more about her experiences and those of other women.

One theory Alicia has for the cause of this syndrome, which involves discomfort and depression during breastfeeding, is a paradoxical reaction to oxytocin. A paradoxical reaction is when someone has not the expected reaction to a drug, but a different one, often the opposite.

I would guess that, rather than a paradoxical reaction to oxytocin, D-MER might be caused by an excess of prolactin. Prolactin is involved in milk letdown, but it's also involved in sexual satiety. It's the hormone, released at orgasm, that tells our bodies we've had enough sex, so give it a rest.

People sometimes talk about a feeling of letdown following sex, a sense of depression and even of distaste for one's partner. I think this, too, is the result of a bit too much of prolactin's satiating ability. It makes sense to me that an excess of prolactin, or too intense a response to its effects, could be the cause of D-MER.

Here are studies indicating prolactin's effect on sexual satiety:

Krueger, Tilmann H.C.; Haake, Philip; Hartmann, Uwe; Schedlowski, Manfred; and Exton, Michael S., Orgasm-induced prolactin secretion: feedback control of sexual drive? (Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 26 2002) 31-44)

Krueger, Tilmann H.C.; Haake, Philip; Haverkamp, J.; Krämer, M .; Exton, Michael S.; Saller, B; Leygraf, N.; Hartmann, Uwe; and Schedlowski, Manfred, Effects of acute prolactin manipulation on sexual drive and function in males (Journal of Endocrinology (2003) 179, 357–365)

Science vs. Religion (When It Comes to Love)

Some very heated discussion on the Ave Maria Gratia Plena blog following author Michelle's comments about oxytocin, bonding and premarital sex. It shows how attempts to understand how our biology affects our emotions gets mired in emotion.

In Why I disagree with promiscuity and fear for the FLDS kids that will be taught modern sex ed, she writes that she's worried that the children removed from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints camp will be taught modern society's ways, including acceptance of premarital sex. She goes on to make some statements about how the bonding effects of oxytocin following sex and orgasm can cloud a woman's judgment about a man.

I think she makes some very valid points; I do agree with this:

Ever wonder why so many women are "in love" with total losers and won't end the relationship? O-x-y-t-o-c-i-n...
~ This is why so many marriages fail when the couples have slept together before being wed: a woman that is chemically bonded to a man is in danger of settling for a husband that is totally not compatible with herself. She can't see this because she is trapped in a bond she probably knows nothing about. (When do they teach girls about oxytocin in sex ed classes??)

However, framing these ideas with this really tragic situation makes it a lot harder to examine what she says. As commenters rightly point out, surely the situation these women, and especially the very young girls who were married to older men who had multiple wives, were in a worse situation than someone who finds herself "bonded to a total loser."

Still, many comments accuse her of ranting and twisting science. One wrote,

You made the claim that a woman is bonded to her sexual partner against her will by oxytocin. That a woman falls in love with a "loser" because of oxytocin. You cannot ask me to offer counterproof until you offer some credible evidence - other than a reference to Wikipedia - to support your statements. Then you'll get your "argument".

I really wish it weren't so, but there is plenty of credible evidence that both men and women become bonded to their sex partners -- and women more so than men. I wish we humans were able to create new forms of relationships and new societies based on our ideals, not our biology. But we remain deeply influenced by our animal natures.

It's completely proven that men and women release oxytocin during  orgasm. Following are some studies that, taken together, make a very strong case that oxytocin creates the bond of human love, and that estrogen increases oxytocin's effects:

Bale, Tracy L.; Davis, Aline M.; Auger, Anthony P.; Dorsa, Daniel M.; and McCarthy, Margaret M. 2001. CNS Region-Specific Oxytocin Receptor Expression: Importance in Regulation of Anxiety and Sex Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience 21(7):2546-2552.

Bales, Karen; Lewis-Reese, Antoniah; Pfeifer, Lisa; and Kramer, Kristin; and Carter, C. Sue. 2007. Early Experience Affects the Traits of Monogamy in a Sexually Dimorphic Manner. Developmental Psychobiology 49:335-342

Carter, C. Sue; DeVries, A.C.; and Getz, L.L. 1995. Physiological substrates of mammalian monogamy: the prairie vole model. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews 19(2): 303-14.

Carter, C. Sue. 2007. Sex differences in oxytocin and vasopressin: Implications for autism spectrum disorders? Behavioural Brain Research 176(1):170-86.

Chung, Wilson C. J.; De Vries, Geert J.; and Swaab, Dick F. 2002. Sexual Differentiation of the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis in Humans May Extend into Adulthood, The Journal of Neuroscience 22(3):1027–1033.

Cushing, B.S. and Carter, C.S. 1999. Prior Exposure To Oxytocin Mimics the Effects Of Social Contact and Facilitates Sexual Behaviour In Females. Journal of Neuroendocrinology 11(10):765–769.

Georgiadis, Janniko R.; Reinders, Simone A.A.T.; Van der Graaf, Ferdinand H.C.E.; Paans, Anne M.J.; Kortekaas, Rudie. 2007. Brain activation during human male ejaculation revisited. Neuroreport 18(6):553-557.


Young, Larry J. and Wang, Zuoxin, The neurobiology of pair bonding (Nature Neuroscience Vo. 7. No. 10, October 2004)

Zak, Paul J.; Kurzband, Robert; and Matzner, William T., Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness (Hormones and Behavior 48 (2005) 522 – 527)