Tweet the Monkey
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Neuropeptide Y: The Oxytocin Alternative?

When we need to defend ourselves or escape from danger, the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in. Cortisol and noradrenaline reduce circulation to the extremities, raise blood pressure, increase energy and attention, and reduce the pain response. This state gives us the best shot at staying alive.

But this state has a downside: You get the shakes, and you may not be able to think clearly, for example, fleeing, when you'd do better standing your ground.  Soldiers have to learn how to make these decisions and to master their fear enough to do battle in the first place. Why are some people able to perform acts of bravery, or to do the right thing under extreme stress?

Deanne Aikins of Yale found higher levels of a neuropeptide -- a brain chemical -- that dampens the body's stress response in some highly resilient individuals. Aikins studied soldiers undergoing survival training, and she found that the coolest heads had the highest levels of neuropeptide y.

Scientists have known about the stress-reduction effects of neuropeptide y for quite some time, and there was a lot of interest in it as a weight-loss aid. Aikins may be the first to link it to  bravery.

From Eureka Science News:

Deane Aikins, a psychiatrist at Yale University, said the remarkable composure of US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who made an emergency landing on the Hudson river last month, showed how well some people can cope with extremely stressful situations. The pilot's actions led to headlines referring to "grace under pressure" – Hemingway's description of heroism."I think some people are born with it," Aikins said. "We would all be ready to scream in our chairs, but there are certain individuals who just don't get as stressed."

My friend Neal sent me a link to the Reuters story saying, "this sounds like anti-oxytocin." I think it sounds more like an oxytocin alternative.

In addition to its role in positive social interactions, oxytocin calms the body down and counteracts the stress response. Usually this happens in times of safety; however, Stephen Porges says oxytocin also creates the freeze-and-hide strategy that prey mammals like rabbits often use.

It would be interesting to know whether there's a relationship between neuropeptide y and vasopressin and/or testosterone.  I wonder if neuropeptide y contributes to the impulse for males to stand and fight to protect the family. When a breeding mammal pair is attacked, the offspring have no chance of survival if the mother dies, while the male is more expendable.

The male's higher levels of testosterone make him more aggressive -- and also mute oxytocin's impulse to huddle in the nest. Vasopressin, a neurochemical very similar to oxytocin, seems to be central to male bonding while increasing guarding and defending behavior. Maybe neuropeptide y is another piece of this behavior.

No,  I AM NOT saying women can't be brave, okay?