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July 2009
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Mothering and Fathering Influence Bonding in Adult Voles

Larry Young and Todd Ahern of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory found that "early life nurturing impacts later life relationships."

It's still another data point in the enormous body of evidence showing how important it is for kids to get early nurturing, love and care. Larry Young was one of the second wave of oxytocin researchers working on the monogamous prairie voles. This research showed that oxytocin was crucial for the prairie voles' ability to form pair bonds.

In this experiment, also with prairie voles, Young and Ahern compared prairie vole pups raised by a single mother with those raised by a male and female couple. In the wild, prairie voles mate for life in a system described as social monogamy. That is, the couples live together and cooperate in raising offspring; they may engage in some extra-pair copulation, the rodent version of affairs.

The pups raised by a single mother got a lower level of care than those raised by a cooperating couple.  And when they reached adulthood, they weren't as enthusiastic parents.

According to the press release,

"These results suggest naturalistic variation in social rearing conditions can introduce diversity into adult nurturing and attachment behaviors. S[ingle-mother]-raised pups were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they showed less interest in nurturing pups in their communal families," says Young.

What Babies Want

Whatbabies want ... is so simple. So, why aren't we giving it to them?

What Babies Want is a new film by Debby Takikawa, founder and director of the non-profit organization, Beginnings Inc.

Here's the synopsis:

This timely and heart-opening film brings together ground-breaking information about what babies truly are, what they know, and how we can support them to be their best as they develop and grow. The experiences we have at our births sets up our perceptive neurology and influences the way we perceive the events of our lives. These early interactions shape our human ability to learn, to trust, and to develop relationships as we grow older.

In fact, these early experiences are shaping the brain and its neurochemical responses. There's strong scientific evidence that the bath of chemicals bathing the baby's brain during labor and birth are designed to jumpstart our ability to bond with others. So it makes sense that the use of artificial oxytocin and anesthetic, isolation of the baby after birth, rough handling, anxiety and fear might set the receptors in a baby's brain in an unhealthy way.

Please help spread the word about this very important film!

Takikawa also produced and directed Reducing Infant Mortality, which you can watch free online.

Here's a link to the trailer for What Babies Want; you will need Quicktime:

Oxytocin Could Be Weaponized, Expert Warns

Malcolm Dando's op-ed piece in Nature this week has gotten attention for his warning that biologists seldom understand the military implications of their research.

Analee Newitz on io9 quotes Dando using oxytocin sprays as an example of this:

Some companies are already marketing oxytocin on the back of studies showing that a nasal squirt of the hormone increases trust in humans. Even though the effectiveness of commercial sprays is doubtful, such research opens up the possibility of a drug that could be used to manipulate people's emotions in a military context. Discussions with more than 2,000 practising life scientists in 13 countries over the past few years have taught me that few have considered such possible uses of their work.

Red Orbit has another article about Dando's op-ed.

In writing my book about oxytocin's role in human emotion, I spoke to most of the top oxytocin researchers. They were well aware about people's self-experimentation. Sue Carter of the University of Illinois said at that their clinic, which treats kids with autism spectrum disorder, many parents told her they'd tried over-the-counter oxytocin sprays, or else asked about it.

Awareness of the issue of self-dosing and entrepreneurial companies using biology research for profit and/or military weapons development isn't much use, of course. Biologists have to do the basic experimentation; the best way they can protect their research is to patent whatever they can.

Did Nature Design Women to Be Social Leaders?

Oxytocin seems to be the key to flocking behavior in birds, as well as schooling behavior in fish. And these behaviors seem to be led by female populations. Could it be that human females are biologically wired to provide the foundation for social behavior?

James Goodson of Indiana University found that blocking mesotocin, an avian neurochemical similar to oxytocin, in zebra finches changed their social behavior. According to the press release,

They spend significantly less time with familiar individuals and more time with unfamiliar individuals. The birds also become less social, preferring to spend less time with a large group of same-sex birds and more time with a smaller group. Conversely, if birds are administered mesotocin instead of the blocker, the finches become more social and prefer familiar partners.

But Goodson found that blocking mesotocin only affected the females; the males' behavior was unchanged. He also found that whether a species likes to congregate seems to depend on the location of the mesotocin receptors.

In the news article, Goodson doesn't speculate on why oxytocin and mesotocin are so much more potent in females. He says he hopes more work on songbirds will shed light on the question. But it's my understanding that, in humans, estrogen enhances the bonding effects of oxytocin, while testosterone mutes them. So it makes perfect sense that women -- in general -- are more interested in social connection.

Putting this together with Goodson's work on flocking, it could be that the predilection for bonding goes beyond individual connections. Perhaps women, like female zebra finches, influence society as a whole, helping us to cooperate, collaborate, trade and keep peace.

The paper, published last Friday in Science, is Mesotocin and Nonapeptide Receptors Promote Estrildid Flocking Behavior.

The Oxytocin Gap

I'm reposting a reply I made to Gila's thoughtful and interesting question: If neuroplasticy lets the brain change, couldn't the pain of broken premarital relationships weaken or harm the oxytocin response?

You raise good questions, Gila. Certainly, neuroplasticity goes both ways. The example of an adult who develops PTSD following a traumatic experience is a good example of negative live experiences causing a change for the worst.

Can broken premarital relationships adversely affect the oxytocin response? I think it is possible. You could think of the oxytocin response as a habit, a learned response to stimuli. Certainly habits can be broken or changed. When we encounter a painful stimulus, we learn to avoid it in the future.

That said, Dr. Keroack's theory seemed to be more that the oxytocin response could be used up: Bond with too many people before marriage and your marriage bond won't be as strong. This really does not make sense. If you can love, you can love many people. Your oxytocin doesn't get used up when you have your first child, for example.

I agree with you that there is a hormonal -- or neurochemical -- explanation for some women's and men's ability to hook up without feeling bonded.

During the first three years of life, our brains undergo rapid and intense development, with patterns laid down that tend to stay with us throughout our lives. They certainly can be modified and changed later, but it's much harder to change a neurochemical habit formed as a baby than one formed as an adult.

The oxytocin response, which I define as the release of oxytocin into the social centers of the brain in response to physical and emotional stimuli, is one such habit. In order for a baby to learn to release oxytocin in times of safety and intimacy, she needs to have a close physical connection with one primary person; she needs to be mothered, whether by her biological mother or another person.

So many things in our society make it difficult to provide this: medicalized birth that can overdose the baby with artificial oxytocin, possibly making her brain less sensitive to it; the need or desire of both parents to get back to work quickly; understaffed daycare centers; our distracted, multitasking lifestyle; and our general lack of awareness about what a baby needs.

I think that many of us become adults without a strong and healthy oxytocin response. I don't think you can successfully work as a prostitute if you have a strong oxytocin response, it would be too painful.

I think the hookup culture we're seeing now may be a reflection of a widespread inability to bond, for all these reasons. You could call it the oxytocin gap.

It should be noted, there is wide variation among individuals, and, nurture and early brain development aside, it's likely that some individuals never will bond strongly. In the monogamous prairie vole, for examples, small variations in the gene for vasopressin, an oxytocin-like molecule, seem to cause some males to not form pair-bonds.

Some background on the Keroack kerfluffle, in case you've forgotten: In 2006, President Bush appointed Eric Keroack to oversee Health and Human Services, and there was a lot of discussion of Keroack's theory that premarital sex could sort of use up your oxytocin supply. Rebecca Turner, the scientist on whose work he based that theory, repudiated his conclusions.

Here is what Dr. Turner said about Dr. Keroack's statements: "Due to concerns about health and emotional development, I certainly would not promote the idea that teenagers should engage in multiple sexual relationships. However, the cautions we give to teens should be based on honest concerns about health and values, not misinformation such as the statement that they will never be able to bond with a partner or have loving attachments in later life. In fact, other research by colleagues in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UCSF* implies that teens are more likely to heed advice when it is seen as believable."

Oxytocin Not Always So Goody-Goody

I just love the snarky tone -- and headline -- of this excellent piece by Charles Choi. It looks like oxytocin's action in our brains may be more complex than I, for one, like to think.

Goody-Goody Hormone Now Linked to Envy, Gloating

The story reports on research by Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa.
Thanks to Michael for sending me the link!

Canadians Want to Get Birthing Mothers Upright

I reported before on a study by Ellen Hodnett that found that replacing hospital beds with couches or regular beds encouraged women in labor to move around and let gravity help push the baby out. The pressure of the baby's head on the cervix when the woman is upright also induces the spurts of oxytocin that create contractions to move the baby down the birth canal.

This article by Sharon Kirkey of CanWest Media examines this and other practices that hospitals can use to reduce the rising number of C-sections there.

According to the article, The Key to Changing C-Section Trend,

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says 20 per cent fewer caesarean sections could be performed if doctors and hospitals followed guidelines aimed at lowering unnecessary surgeries.

In rooms where a regular bed with comfy cushions replaced the hospital bed in the center of the room,

In the end, women in the ambient labour room used significantly less artificial oxytocin to speed up slow labours -- a 28 per cent drop in infusions compared to women in the standard hospital rooms.

Do Women Make Better Bosses?

The New York Times Opinion blog has a very thoughtful debate among experts about whether women make better bosses; if so, why; and whether you can ever make statements like this.

The discussion is quite balanced and science-backed. Susan Pinker says women are better at intuiting what others thing, while Joanna Barsh of McKinsey (which has been studying this question for five years!) points out that if women are more emotional in the workplace, that can be for the better -- or for the worse.

If women are better connectors, due to their greater susceptibility to the trust, generosity and bonding effects of oxytocin, they should be better managers. No????