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New Oxytocin Trials Recruiting

Most of us should be able to increase our oxytocin by practicing comfortable behaviors, which may be as simple as calling a good friend or going to the dog park and scratching some ears. But I know that there's strong interest in some kind of drug we could take to either amplify our natural oxytocin or to experience the kind of oxytocin release that doesn't come naturally to us.

At this point in time, most researchers are focusing on using oxytocin to treat diagnosable disorders including social anxiety, autism and schizophrenia. While these studies test oxytocin's use in diagnosed disorders, if they result in marketable drugs, it's very likely that psychiatrists will begin to prescribe them off-label, that is, for other permissible treatments besides those for which the drug is sold.

UC San Diego is recruiting subjects for two studies of the effects of oxytocin on psychiatric disorders. One study will test whether an oxytocin inhalant can improve residual symptoms of schizophrenia. Another will look at oxytocin's effects on anxiety. If you have a diagnosis of SAD, GAD or PTSD and want to enroll, contact Angel Nguyen at 619-543-8296 or by email.

Meanwhile, if you're curious and live in the Boston area, Harvard is recruiting for a study of the connection between social support and oxytocin.  For more information or to enroll in the study, contact Laura D Kubzansky at 617-432-3589 or by email.

When I began researching my book four years ago, there were very few clinical studies of oxytocin. Now, there are lots, more than I want to mention in this newsletter. To find out about these -- or trials for other kinds of drugs -- search

The Joy of Generosity (oxytocin)

Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University, the foremost researcher on oxytocin's effects on humans, has an interesting post on his Psychology Today blog, recounting an experiment that shows how one experience that releases oxytocin influences behaviors in other situations -- for the better. (Paul, are you going to do any experiments to see if you can increase gloating?)

He writes,

Oxytocin connects us to others and social connections are a powerful way to increase one's own happiness. If you want to connect to others, being generous is a great start.

The Penis, Arousal and Oxytocin

As you know if you've been reading my blog, oxytocin is not just the cuddle hormone, nor is it just a girl thing. It's also necessary for sexual arousal, and studies have charted its effects specifically on penile erection. (They have not to my knowledge tested whether oxytocin is necessary for the engorgement of the clitoris -- aka female arousal -- but I sure bet it is.)

The Neurotopia blog covers an interesting study showing that oxytocin levels rise inside the penis as excitement increases, specifically in the corpus cavernosa, the spongy center of the penis. It also rises in the circulating blood -- until full erection. According to Neurotopia:

During sexual arousal and the formation of an erection, oxytocin levels went up in both the systemic blood and the cavernosa blood. But as the penis reached full rigidity, oxytocin continued to rise in the penis, but flattened off in the systemic circulation. Then, during the soft-off, blood levels of oxytocin the penis dropped (as expected), but rose AGAIN in the systemic circulation.

I wonder if this leveling off and then new increase in the amount of oxytocin circulating in the blood correlates with oxytocin levels inside the brain. (In fact, many studies assume that it does, measuring blood levels to make a guess at brain levels.) Is this how sex remains, well, sexy, while the emotional charge comes afterward?

Autism Gene Linked to Empathy

A variation in a gene for the oxytocin receptor helps determine how much empathy a person has, according to a new study.

Sarina Rodrigues, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University and  Laura Saslow, a UC Berkeley psychology graduate student, compared four variations in the OXTR gene. They found that people who inherited one specific combo were much more likely to be able to identify emotions in the "mind-reading" test, and also described themselves as generally mellow and less likely to get stressed.

From the UC Berkeley press release:

All humans inherit a variation of this gene or "allele" from each parent. The UC Berkeley study looked at the three combinations of gene variations of the oxytocin receptor. The most empathetic – able to get an accurate read on others' emotions – had two copies of the "G allele." In contrast, members of the AA and AG allele groups were found to be less capable of putting themselves in the shoes of others and more likely to get stressed out in difficult situations.

This study is a counterpoint to the recent research from Duke University showing that differences in the methylation of genes that regulate the expression of oxytocin receptors correlated with autism.

A Boy's Choice: Purpose or Aggression

There's an excellent interview with Michael Gurian in Scouting MagazineMichael Gurian is author of many books on parenting boys that are based on brain science. I love his approach, which is to channel a boy's higher levels of testosterone away from violence and toward a higher purpose. Remember, boys' brains produce as much oxytocin as girls' brains do; but testosterone tends to mute oxytocin's bonding and connecting effects.

Here is just one of many interesting nuggets from Gurian's interview with Sean Mitchell.

We’ve heard a lot about the importance of self-esteem, but you write that self-esteem should not be conferred automatically on boys.

It has to be earned. And studies show that boys, after a certain age, don’t trust blanket praise. They want praise based on their achievement. It’s a little different with girls. Girls are so verbal, and their oxytocin level is so high, that if you say to a girl, “You’re great! Great job!” that has a different effect on the female brain than the male brain. It immediately stimulates oxytocin, which is a bonding chemical.

With sons, that doesn’t work as well, in general. They don’t get the same surge.

While we're using science in so many areas of life, parenting is too often left completely to the unconscious desires and attitudes of people who may not have been well-parented themselves. Gurian provides compassionate and wise guidance for parents -- and I think his views could change society for the better.

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael in 2007, as I was writing my book. (His work informs the chapter on adolescent love and lust.)  Read the interview here.

Nesting and Oxytocin: New Link

I believe that "nesting behavior" can help humans improve their oxytocin response. In examining my own journey in learning to connect with other people in positive ways, I think that buying my first home was a key step in my healing. In psychological terms, I learned to nurture myself, giving myself the experience of being cared for. Psychotherapists often tell us we need to learn to mother ourselves.

It also makes intuitive sense that making a home for yourself, caring for yourself, could release oxytocin. And a study found that people who cared for a sick spouse were healthier, likely because caretaking of others releases oxytocin. So, shouldn't caring for yourself do the same?

An interesting experiment with rats provides a piece of evidence that this might be the case.

A team of scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that offering stressed-out rats nesting material helped them to heal from wounds just as much as administering oxytocin did. 

Some background: Oxytocin does many wonderful things, including relieving stress and promoting healing. When you isolate an animal, it causes it to become very stressed. One of the results of this stress is that its general health declines, including the ability to heal. Administering oxytocin reduces the level of stress and speeds up healing. Giving rats oxytocin also increases all sorts of bonding behaviors.

So, if letting these poor isolated rats build nests had the same effect as giving them oxytocin did, it seems likely -- although this experiment does not show this -- that it's because nest-building causes a release of oxytocin.

Because so far most of the effects of oxytocin in rodents do map to human studies, I think we could extrapolate from this one by saying that, if you want to boost your oxytocin, spend some time each day in making your home environment more nurturing, even if -- or maybe especially if -- it's just for you.

Vitalo A, Fricchione J, Casali M, Berdichevsky Y, Hoge EA, et al. (2009) Nest Making and Oxytocin Comparably Promote Wound Healing in Isolation Reared Rats. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005523

You, Your Diary and Oxytocin

In 2008, researchers found that people who had spent time writing about their core values were less defensive and more open to hearing information about health -- maybe because the activity releases oxytocin. And James Pennebaker of the University of Texas found that journaling improves the immune system. Because oxytocin promotes healing and balance, this is another clue that writing in a journal may boost your oxytocin.

Mari_mccarthy_writer Mari L. McCarthy is a writing therapist. She helps people develop their personal journaling practice in order to improve their spiritual, psychological and physical health. (You can find out more about this multitalented woman at CreateWriteNow.) We chatted on the phone about how keeping a journal can help you transform your health and your outlook. I think that there's strong evidence that keeping a diary or journal can also boost your everyday oxytocin levels.

HUG: So studies showed that journaling can increase people's positive behaviors and maybe their oxytocin levels. I guess that's not news to you?

MARI: I find it's making me more and more positive. The more journaling you do, the more negative you get out of it, and you get to the good stuff. You find we're basically good, happy people at the core.

HUG: Are you surprised science is affirming this?

MARI: No. Science is now looking at the whole person, the mind in context of the body. I'm excited that, in bits and pieces, they're starting to see there's some truth to that.

HUG: I'm fine with intuitive and pragmatic, but I love that we now have ammunition for the people who are so into scientific proof. Tell me what you mean by journaling.

MARI: I call it journaling for the health of it: getting yourself into a routine or practice of having a journal and preferably daily jotting down your thoughts, feelings or whatever. The key is to do it on a routine basis, so there's some structure to it. You don't have to do x number of pages; it's whatever you feel like doing.

HUG: Is the importance of doing it regularly that you form a habit, or does it somehow deepen the process every time you go back to it?

MARI: Yes, and yes. It becomes a habit and you reinforce your commitment to yourself. It also gets you further and further and further into yourself. It's fascinating how much there is to us. It's amazing to realize there's a whole universe inside ourselves.

HUG: One aspect is writing, getting stuff out. And another part is reflecting on what you've written?

MARI: Definitely. By getting all the stuff out and on the page, it opens up other pathways or channels, so it helps you in your daily life.

HUG: Do you recommend people start writing whatever comes out, or should we have a goal or topic?

MARI: My suggestion is to do free writing. No thinking, just put the pen on the page and write about wherever you're at. Don't pay attention to topic sentences or whatever, just get it all out. As you get into the process, a word might stick in your head, or a situation that upset or angered you. You might ask the page a question or start out, "I'm so aggravated with my boss because …" If you don't feel like writing, put that down.

HUG: you've given us some hints about how to get started. Do you have any tips for those of us who just stare at the blank page?

MARI: Have a discussion with your journal. Pretend you're talking to your therapist and have a conversation on paper. Realize that when you're staring at the blank page, we have inner critics and old baggage that makes us very comfortable with not doing something for ourselves. There may be old messages we've ingested that it's selfish, or we don't have any feelings. We need to realize that we created those things to protect ourselves, but the wires got crossed. We've moved forward through our lives with those old thought patterns. There are all sorts of things in our subconscious we're not privy to yet, until we get into the journaling process. So it's not unusual at all for our inner critics to have a real hold on us and prevent us from getting to the page.

In the journaling process you'll experience physical and emotional pains. We're not a mind and a body, we're all together. So when we have disease or physical manifestations, it has a great deal to do with our thought processes. Journaling helps us get through it and understand the stress we've been carrying around.

If you're feeling blocked, Mari has more tips for you on her blog. You might want to start with her article, 6 Therapeutic Journaling Tricks and Treats.