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June 2008
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August 2008

Studying the Relationship Between Pitocin, Labor and Behavior

The Joy in Birth blog posted a summary of a very interesting study of whether the administration of pitocin during labor affects a child's later behavior.

As her Ph.D. thesis, Claire Winstone devised a survey to see whether the personalities or behaviors of three-year-olds differed based on whether their moms had pitocin or not. She found two distinguishing characteristics:

The first was called "Assertiveness" , which describes a socially appropriate way that babies and children communicate their need for help and comfort when they are feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. ... babies born with Pitocin, whose mothers reported having had a more challenging time during labor and delivery, appear to have a higher need to be assertive because they seem to experience more discomfort, but are apparently less effective in asserting their needs and getting them met when they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

The second factor was called "Need to Control Environment" and this summarizes what seems to be a higher level of discomfort or insecurity, particularly in response to "outside-in" influences (e.g., reacting to food with digestive problems or being picky eaters; problems coping with other people's timing and structure, refusing help from others) and increased or exaggerated efforts to control their environment.

Blog author FairyMom doesn't provide a link to the study or information on who Winstone is; I think she may be this prenatal psychologist. In any case, the synopsis of her study is worth reading on the blog.

Finally! Massage Increases Oxytocin

UCLA scientists have confirmed something we feel intuitively must be true: Massage increases oxytocin.

Countless magazine and newspaper articles have said getting a massage is a good way to increase your oxytocin levels, and it sure makes sense. But there has been no scientific evidence that it was the case. According to this article in the Boston Globe, a new study included not only playing the Trust Game after getting a massage, but also drawing people's blood to measure the oxytocin levels. This study used men and women, too.

According to the article,

volunteers at UCLA were randomly assigned to be massaged or just wait in a room for 15 minutes and then play an anonymous, one-shot, money-giving game via computer. Those who were massaged returned 38 percent of the money that was given to them, compared with 11 percent for those who were not massaged. The researchers also drew blood from each person before and after the experiment to see if physiological changes - namely in the level of the hormone oxytocin, which is known to influence bonding behavior - could explain the effect. There was an increase in oxytocin only for those people who were massaged and then played the game.

Another way to describe the effect of oxytocin is to say that the well-kneaded group returned 243 percent more money than the stiffer bunch. The effect was stronger in women than in men, which also makes sense, given our greater sensitivity to oxytocin's effects.

They saw this effect not so much after the massage itself as after the trust game. Paul Zak, one of the researchers, thinks that the massage acts as a signal to the brain to be open to trusting interactions.

Another way of saying this is that massage makes us more relaxed, and when we're relaxed, we tend to be more open to others.

To get the most oxytocin-producing benefits, choose a gentle, soothing massage style. Avoid deep tissue work or acupressure; while these are valuable techniques for reducing muscle tension, their intensity may not allow for the right kind of relaxation. The Swedish or Esalen styles use gentler, rhythmic motions that have been shown to elevate oxytocin levels in animals. After the massage, you can test whether you feel more open to connection by calling or visiting with a friend.

"Monetary Sacrifice Among Strangers is Mediated by Endogenous Oxytocin Release after Physical Contact," is by Vera B. Morhenn, Jang Woo Park, Elisabeth Piper, Paul J. Zak, in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Sex Marathon Improves Love Relationship Too

When Doug and Annie Brown realized they weren't having sex for months at a time, they made a pact to have sex every day for 101 days. Then, they wrote a book about it.

In this article in the Boulder Daily Camera, writer Aimee Heckel discusses how the neurochemistry of sex, including tons of oxytocin released during touching and orgasm, makes every part of the relationship better. She interviewed Doug Brown, who said that while they really really didn't want to have sex some of the times, it changed not only their sexual relationship but also transformed them emotionally.

Brown told Heckel:

"It's a very powerful and unique act," he says. "I think in the context of a relationship, it can really add an almost spiritual shine to the relationship."

When he talks about the "spiritual" dimension of sex, he isn't talking about religion, but rather something primal, something natural.

"There's definitely an electricity. A sort of flesh-to-flesh electricity that happens," he says. "We also found the more we did it, the stronger that electricity was. There's something there beyond just kind of having sex. It is beyond just pure pleasure."

Sex is the thing that keeps couples together. It's what creates and maintains the bond. In my experience, it does get harder and harder to find time to connect in bed, but it's a really necessary part of being with someone.

Oxytocin Relieves Anxiety By Acting on the Brain

Every new study seems to fire the excitement about oxytocin. At the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where Kerstin Uvnas Moberg first identified the role oxytocin plays in reducing anxiety and bonding mother and child, Predrag Petrovic found inhaling it can reduce anxiety.

Petrovic first conditioned subjects by giving them mild electric shocks as they looked at photos of faces. Then, half the subjects inhaled oxytocin and went into the fMRI scanner, which shows what parts of the brain are activated during a particular activity.

According to Science Daily's article,

Using an fMR scanner, the team also found that subjects who had developed shock-induced feelings of anxiety for certain faces exhibited, when shown these faces, higher levels of activity in two brain areas – the amygdale and the ‘fusiform face area’ – that process unpleasant and threatening faces. These activity levels then dropped when they were given oxytocin, but not when given the placebo.

Other experiments have shown decreased activity in the amygdala, thought to be the part of the brain that processes information from the senses and assigns emotional tone to it before sending it up to conscious thought.

How Breastfeeding Helps Mothers Bond

Scientists at Warwick University have modeled the way breastfeeding creates an oxytocin feedback loop that creates the waves of love and peace that many mothers report enjoying while they suckle their babies.

According to the the UK's Mail Online,

... the research team, led by Warwick University scientists, has shown using computer models that when a baby suckles, the mother's neurons respond by churning out the hormone from their dendrites - the part of the cell that usually receives, rather than transmits information.

This extra release of oxytocin creates much stronger links between nerve cells - creating a 'positive-feedback' loop, where the greater the concentration of the chemical, the faster it is produced.

This allows massive, intense, bursts of the love hormone to sweep through the brain at intervals of around five minutes. The findings could shed light on other chemical changes in the brain linked to mood.

Professor Jianfeng Feng, who demonstrated the effect, said: 'We knew that these pulses arise because, during suckling, oxytocin neurons fire together in dramatic synchronised bursts.

'But exactly how these bursts arise has been a major problem that has until now eluded explanation.

This must be an amazing feeling, and I can see how it would create a very deep connection to the baby. I think those of us who haven't experienced this cannot imagine the feeling. I also have to wonder -- just a little? -- about how not experiencing this affects the bonding between mother and baby.

See also, The Mother/Baby Attachment Gap.

Hug Your Monkey Even If You Don't Want Sex

I thought this was a good column from the Times Online: Touching Shouldn't Always Mean Sex.

Relationship expert Pam Spurr points out how hard it can be for male/female couples to send and understand signals about touching. Sometimes, you don't want sex, but you need to be touched and held. She points out:

When our skin is touched, our bodies produce various responses including producing oxytocin, the emotional bonding hormone. This makes us feel good around our loved one. That heart-warming feeling means that we want more of their company. And so the cycle goes on bonding us together.

Interesting that most of the comments are very hostile. I agree it's a bit of a stereotype that he wants sex, she wants to cuddle, but certainly mismatches in how much sex people want are not uncommon.

Fall Out of Love Fast!

Rachel wrote me to ask:

If it weren't for your blog on oxytocin, I would have thought I was going insane. ...Here's the deal:

I met a boy. Gave him my number. He called. When we were both finally free, we got together and hit it off. In fact, we spent 12 hours together on our first date, which was a series of random adventures including going to an outdoor festival, hanging out with my friends and his and eventually ending in a makeout fest with him pushing me into walls and kissing my neck and sucking on my ears generally making me swoon all over this metropolis in which we live. It was hot. It was lovely. But even though I called it a night and we parted and went our separate ways (i.e. no sex), I think I made a huge mistake by making out with him for such a prolonged period of time. 
For the whole week after I met the boy, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. The pleasurable "reverb" was so strong, I literally thought I was going insane. It wasn't until I found your blog that I realized what was going on. I guess because the boy was so skilled and I came to trust him, he ramped up my physical response into something like instant love. Of course I know that I don't love the guy, but now I'm a slave. I need release, because I see the signs. The last time he asked me out he texted me three letters: "Tmw?" He hasn't called me in 5 days. I am not a priority. He just got out of a long-term relationship. Blah blah blah. I know pursuing this further is a mistake and I can handle all of this reality in practical terms, but here is my question: HOW DO I BREAK THE SPELL? How do I get the giddy oxytocin butterflies to knock it off? I need a good night's sleep. Please, oh please, help me.

Dear Rachel:

It sounds like you're in the throes of romantic love, which I believe is different from committed love. Using brain scans, Helen Fisher, author of why we love, found that in the brains of people who were newly, madly in love, it was their motivational centers, not their emotional centers that were in high gear. Her theory, with which I concur, is that the neurochemicals of romantic love are dopamine and norepinephrine, with low levels of serotonin.

It sounds like you've got a classic case.

Oxytocin is probably involved as well; all that touching and making out caused your brain to put out plenty of oxytocin, which activated your social memory, pinning all that excitement and fun to this one particular person. What you need to do now to break the spell is uncouple the giddy effects of dopamine and norepinephrine from this one boy.

Dopamine is the neurochemical of reward, but also of focused attention. It seems to impel us to go after a reward. Right now, you're totally focused on going after the reward of this boy. What other short-term or long-term goals do you have in your life? Now is a time when you can really make some progress on achieving on, because you're so charged up. Norepinephrine will help you in this, because it helps you concentrate and energizes you. If you can't identify a specific goal right now, throw yourself into a project, art, a hobby or a sport.

You can also burn off some of this energy with hard exercise or some equally exciting fun that doesn't involve this boy. I always say bungee jumping, but anything thrilling will refocus your attention nicely.

Finally, you can try to bring yourself down by increasing your oxytocin levels. If you like animals, cuddling with something fuzzy has been shown to calm people down and increase their oxytocin. Hanging out and sharing your feelings with close female friends will also give you a nice oxytocin/estrogen buzz.

And hey, use your brain. You're smart enough to have figured out what's going on; keep reminding yourself that these feelings aren't about him, they're something happening in your body. Be glad about that; it's a wonderful feeling, and it will be even better when it's reciprocated.

Oxytocin Makes You Forget Who Hurt You

Baby Face
Originally uploaded by nep.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience amplifies the "oxytocin keeps us trusting after betrayal" theme.

Predrag Petrovic, Raffael Kalisch, Tania Singer, and Raymond J. Dolan of the Wellcome Trust Functional Imaging Laboratory in London found that sniffing oxytocin eliminated a conditioned negative response to a person's face. According to their unsexily named Oxytocin Attenuates Affective Evaluations of Conditioned Faces and Amygdala Activity,"

Using a standard conditioning procedure, we induced differential negative affective ratings in faces exposed to an aversive conditioning compared with nonconditioning manipulation. This differential negative evaluative effect was abolished by treatment with oxytocin, an effect associated with an attenuation of activity in anterior medial temporal and anterior cingulate cortices.

They found that the reduced activity in the amygdala was more pronounced when subjects looked at photos of people looking directly at the camera, and less when the person in the photo was looking to the side. Oxytocin has been shown to reduce the activity of the amygdala, which seems to make snap decisions about whom to trust.

This points to making eye contact as a social signal that it's a situation in which it's appropriate to trust, they say. If so, it explains why people who are good at connecting with others -- as well as scammy people -- make immediate eye contact, and also why we tend to feel negatively toward those who don't meet our eyes.

It could also help explain the mechanism by which we learn the oxytocin response as the person who mothers us gazes into our faces as babies.

NB: This study didn't set off a news frenzy similar to May's "betrayal study," led by Thomas Baumgartner at the University of Zurich, in which people played a game in which they exchange money. It actually seems a bit more exciting, because it deals with faces. Are we experiencing an oxytocin backlash?

Oxytocin Hype and Backlash

I read New York magazine, and they have a regular item called something like "We ride the shifting curve of expectations." They chart where cultural events like books and films fall on the cycle from hype to backlash against the hype.

In the past couple of weeks, I've watched oxytocin follow a similar path. Because I look at every news article and study regarding oxytocin, as well as all the blog posts discovered by a couple blog search tools, I can see what studies spark news coverage, and what kinds of memes spread.

Oxytocin hype has been rampant for the past three weeks. As far as I can tell, it got started with study led by Thomas Baumgartner at the University of Zurich showing that inhaling oxytocin increased people's willingness to trust other players in an economic game, even after they'd been shafted once. This is the team at the University of Zurich that did the very first human oxytocin studies showing that oxytocin increased trust. (Read my blog post about the previous research here.)

In this study, "We find that subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust."

Some genius copywriter translated this to, "Oxytocin Makes Us Trust after Betrayal," leading to a spate of stories about how "Spray Said to Turn People into Pushovers." And it also led to my appearance on the Fox Morning With Mike and Juliet show.

Not to be outdone, Markus Heinrichs, who leads the Zurich team, talked to reporters (but did not, I believe, actually publish anything new) about their work using oxytocin to treat social anxiety disorder, which has been under way for several years. That sparked another news rush.

They mostly followed the lines of this one, Scientists Find Childbirth Wonder Drug That Can Cure Shyness, kindly sent to me by Blaine. Is that a sexy headline or what? The articles finally recognized the work of Paul Zak, who has been giving oxytocin to humans for several years, without a lot of notice. I didn't blog all these articles, partly because they were so ubiquitous and partly because I was finishing the manuscript of my book, ta daaa!

Already, though, oxytocin hype has faded into the final cycle, backlash. In part this is simply because news reporters have to come up with new stories every day. Once you've written a story hyping the prospects of oxytocin -- or worse, when your competitors have and you haven't -- where do you go from there but to write another one decrying the first. Ideally, at least in the olden days when I started my career as a journalist, you were supposed to find naysayers to quote in every story. But that was then.

The Neurocritic links to an ABC News story now insisting, "Researchers Balk at Media Reports Hyping 'Love Drug' Hormone's Effects."

And Paul Zanucci of American Sentinel calls it, "The Oxytocin Nightmare to Come -- Drugging America." I agree with his premise, and have been saying for a while that oxytocin will be the next Prozac. That is, while oxytocin-based or oxytocin-like drugs will be developed for social anxiety disorder and ASD, it will eventually be prescribed for much milder psychological situations. Zanucci writes,

Every time someone blows their nose, there’s a new prescription written for nasal sprays and antihistamines even though products like Zyrtec can now be bought OTC in generic form.  Every time someone is stressed out by work, another prescription is written for anti-anxiety medication.  People are happy as clams to pay $30 to $50 for the latest in pharmaceutical living, not considering that their insurance is paying another $300 behind the scenes and that their cost for insurance is going to go up again next year.

Nevertheless, I think calling this a nightmare is way too anti-hyperbolic. I'd much rather we revise labor, birth and parenting practices to allow individuals to form a healthy oxytocin response naturally. But our society is probably too sick and mechanistic for that. In which case, a nation of loved-out citizens who inhale oxytocin several times a day would be preferable to our extant war-mongering, paranoid, crabby society.

At any rate, I think we can shortly expect oxytocin to fall off the news cycle for at least a few months.