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Oxytocin, Chemical of Connection and Envy

Still another clue that oxytocin's effects are much more complex that we expect. We already saw that the cuddle hormone, brain chemical of love, trust and connection, also increases feelings of gloating.

Well, looks like oxytocin contributes to envy, as well. Simone Shamay-Tsoory at the University of Haifa's Department of Psychology found that inhaling oxytocin increased feelings of envy when test subjects played a game where chose a door and got whatever prize was hidden behind it. 

What does this mean for all the interest in using oxytocin to help people with autism/ASD, social anxiety disorder, etc., as well as all the folks huffing products sold on the internet? Says Shamay-Tsoory,

"We used to think that oxytocin was only related to pro-social emotions," Dr Shamay-Tsoory said. "But then there were studies on rats showing that oxytocin can enhance aggressive behavior."

"Now this is the first study on humans, and our findings suggest that oxytocin has a more general effect on social emotions, not just positive and pro-social emotions," she said. "This means that if we are going to try use oxytocin we need to take into account that it has negative effects."

Oxytocin Gene Methylation Clue to Autism

with Jasvir Singh

Scientists have found many genetic markers for autism, including evidence that malfunction of the genes that influence oxytocin receptors may be at fault. A new study by Duke Department of Medicine researcher Simon Gregory identified a different culprit: epigenetics.

We used to think of genes as a deck of cards, shuffled at conception, that determined our physical development. If you had the genes for blue eyes, your eyes were blue. But now, we know that genes may switched on and off throughout fetal development and even throughout our lives. Even physical traits like hair color are not completely pre-determined. A group of molecules on top of our DNA, the epigenome, tells genes when to turn on or off. Epigenetics is basically a mediator between nature and nurture—it can activate some genes while inhibiting others. Once the gene is turned off epigenetically, the DNA has typically been methylated.

Most studies of the genetic basis of autism have focused on genes or missing genetic material in the DNA sequence. But a link between DNA methylation and autism has been described by Gregory in the journal BMC Medicine.

Gregory and his colleagues looked at how oxytocin relates to social interaction in those with autism disorders. They examined an oxytocin receptor gene, called OXTR, and found that 70 percent of the autistic people in a study had a methylated OXTR, in comparison to only 40 percent of those without symptoms of autism.

Those with autism often have their OXTR gene turned off, which could be why they have a greater difficulty in relating to others than those without autism.

Gregory thinks that methylation-modifying drugs might be a new area to explore for autism treatments. It seems as though finding a way to turn the oxytocin receptor gene back on might be a step in the right direction for treating autism.

Read more about Gregory's study, and other work on epigenetics, in the Washington Post.

Hugs for Tough Guys, Too

I had to laugh when I saw Joe Navarro on the blog Spycatcher advocating hugs to boost your oxytocin.

Even Joe's photo shrieks, "Don't mess with me!" It's not surprising, since he's a former FBI counterintelligence agent and the author of Every Body is Saying.

But he gives good advice for hard-asses and wannabes: You need hugs too.  In his Psychology Today blog, he writes:

Even without giving a hug, people can use their arms to demonstrate warmth and, in so doing, increase their chances of being viewed favorably by others. When approaching a stranger for the first time, try demonstrating warmth by leaving your arms relaxed, preferably with the ventral side exposed and perhaps even with the palms of your hands clearly visible. This is a very powerful way of sending the message, “Hello, I mean no harm” to the other person’s limbic system.

He has other tips for people who crave warm physical contact but shrink away from promiscuous huggies.

Kitten Response Could Be Lifesaving

Ringo You know that lolcat feeling? The one you get from looking at funny pictures of animals, especially fuzzy little kittens and such?

Well, that's the oxytocin feeling. As such, it's the feeling that makes us want to take care of our children instead of eating them. And, by extension, care for other folks and creatures that need our help.

Neurocritic discusses research showing that this same aww-cute impulse can improve surgeons' performance in the operating room by making them more careful.  Read it here: Kittens in the Operating Room

Survival of the Kindest?

with Jasvir Singh

Sympathy may be our strongest instinct, according to UC Berkeley researchers. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, believes that humans are successful as a species primarily because of our “nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.”

 It seems that humans are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.  In one study, Laura Saslow, of Oregon State University, and Sarina Rodrigues, of UCB,  found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are better able to read the emotional state of others and get less stressed out under difficult circumstances.

 Oxytocin (informally known as the “cuddle hormone”) is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing, romantic love, and more. "The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene," Rodrigues said.

 The beliefs of these researchers seem to contrast with Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest evolutionary theories. Therefore, these researchers go on to examine how these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers. UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer answers this question by claiming that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield.

 Through their investigation, Keitner and his team have found that oxytocin plays a key role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, two people were separated by a barrier and allowed to communicate through touching each other through a hole in the barrier. Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many female participants grew anxious. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

According to Science Daily,

"This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said. Perhaps Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory would be better posited as “survival of the kindest.”




Oxytocin Processing Linked to Depression

A new study has found that women who were depressed had irregularities in their release of oxytocin.

The study led by Jill Cyranowski of the University of Pittsburgh compared the levels of oxytocin in the blood of women as they did two activities: a guided imagery exercise that focused on love, and a stress test.

The tasks didn't produce any changes in oxytocin levels among depressed women or the control group. However, the depressed women showed more irregular pulses of oxytocin than the controls did.

This research shows two important things: First, that oxytocin problems could be connected to depression. If that's the case, oxytocin therapies could be helpful. Second, it bolsters other research that seems to tell us that it's not how much oxytocin you have coursing through your body and brain, but the change in levels.

It's simplistic but useful to talk about "boosting your oxytocin," and I do use this verbiage. But oxytocin's social signaling is much more complicated.

Evidence of Dysregulated Peripheral Oxytocin Release  

Your Baby's Smile Is a Real Rush

with Jasvir Singh

It's not exactly late-breaking news that seeing your baby smile is one of life's simplest but deepest pleasures. But a Baylor College professor used brain scans to show just how rewarding it is.

Lane Strathearn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at at the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, and a research associate in BCM’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, found that the reward centers in mothers' brains were activated when they saw their babies smile. (For you science geeks, those areas were the ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra regions, the striatum, and frontal lobe regions, all of which are involved in emotion processing, cognition and motor/behavioral outputs.) The activation was similar to those activated by drug addiction.

Strathearn has conducted research for the past nine years aimed to develop a better understanding of the pervasive problem of child neglect. A goal of his research has been to link early experiences in mothers with the relationship they develop with their children, and understand the biological mechanisms underlying this connection. An earlier study of his found that women who breastfed were less likely to neglect their children.

According to a story from Queensland University's media office about his work (Strathearn is a graduate):

"Our subsequent study showed that the hormone, oxytocin, which is involved in breastfeeding, is also related to secure attachment in mothers and to brain 'reward' activation when they view pictures of their baby," Dr Strathearn said. The study addresses the importance of this initial mother-infant relationship.

 Now, he's doing a study to see whether inhaling oxytocin influences how their brains respond to their babies.

Strathearn thinks that increasing demands for mothers to balance family and work life has caused the basic needs of children to fall lower and lower on the priority list. Unfortunately, physical and emotional neglect is often the result.


The Case for Harm from Pitocin in Labor

Christof Plothe is a doctor of osteopathy who works at a pediatric clinic in Alzy, Germany.

His paper, in press for 2010 publication in the International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, reviews the scientific literature on oxytocin in relation to bonding between mother and child, and then examines studies showing effects of oxytocin or Pitocin (a synthetic brand) used during labor.

Plothe writes,

"For over 50 years Oxytocin has been used in modern obstetrics during  birth. Whilst the physiological aspects of the hormone have been  studied intensely the psychological mechanisms of its function have  only started to be known since the nineties of the last century. I  have been working with newborns for over a decade now and observed  fundamental differences after the oxytocin related births in the  babies, later in the adolescents and even in the adults. The  article is a summary of the contemporary research  of Oxytocin and hypothesizes that Oxytocin can have a lifelong   imprinting on the psyche when used during the delivery. 

He has observed that some children seem "oxytocin-imbalanced." These kids may be insecure, have difficulty with school work, and problems with relationships within the family. Plothe has been treating some with oxytocin, and found that such symptoms improved or even disappeared.

He calls for more studies and discussion among health professionals and researchers to try to determine how much modern birth practices may have lifelong consequences.

You can read the entire paper here: The perinatal application of oxytocin and its potential influence on the human psyche.