Oxytocin May Be as Strong in Polyamory as in Monogamy

54718701_9ab871dcc5 This research is a couple of years old, but it really struck me.

You may have heard of the naked mole rat, a weird little beast that can eat a lot of worms really fast. Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) live in colonies with a single breeding queen, much like bees do. Many of the non-breeding individuals care cooperatively for the young.

According to Lisa Conti in Miller-McCune, Nancy Forger of the University of Massachusetts found that there were lots of oxytocin receptors in the rats' nucleus accumbens, which is considered the pleasure center in mammals -- including humans.

Researchers think that this distribution contributes to social monogamy (as opposed to strict sexual monogamy), for example, in the famously monogamous prairie voles. The idea is, the pleasure of sex is tied to the individual mate, creating a bond and a state in the brain that looks very similar to addiction.

So, if the mole rats are equally bonded to the group, it seems like this could illuminate the basis of a similar bond in a polyamorous family.

photo: Riude (Juhan Ristolainen)

Connection, Loss, Science and Mothering (Poem)

My friend Alan Phillips has written a poem that intertwines many of the things this blog is about -- love and attachment, labor and birth, mothering, oxytocin, connection.

It's a wonderful poem, and extra wonderful to me because it lets me see all these ideas and scientific studies in a different light.

Please check it out: Legend of My Birth.

Docs Starting to Rethink Pitocin

There's a fair amount of scientific evidence -- along with tons of anecdotal evidence -- that the routine use of Pitocin to speed or manage labor is a bad idea.

Pitocin is a synthetic form of oxytocin, commonly administered in a steady drip to "keep labor on track," that is, deliver the baby within a timeframe determined by the hospital or doctor, not by the woman's body. In an unmedicated birth, the woman's hypothalamus and pituitary gland deliver spurts of oxytocin to the brain and bloodstream, causing the uterus to contract, pushing the baby down the birth canal. These pulses also give the woman's body time to rest between contractions, while reducing her anxiety.  The pauses also relieve pressure on the baby, allowing blood to flow through the brain.

In the hospital, Pitocin can make these contractions too strong and too close together. Too-strong contractions can compress the baby's head, causing brain damage.

Some natural birth experts believe that an overload of Pitocin can flood the oxytocin in the baby's brain, causing them to be less sensitive throughout life and contributing to autism spectrum disorder.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, doctors in the seven-state Trinity Health System are now using a standard protocol to limit the amount of Pitocin given. According to the article:

Pitocin should be used only to stimulate the uterus to behave as it would during a delivery progressing normally, not to make contractions stronger and faster, [Dr. Augustus Parker, an obstetrician who works on improving quality at Mount Carmel East] said. Before this, dosing was left to individual obstetricians.

In addition to striving to keep Pitocin-use at a safe level, the hospital system is working to make sure doctors who are inducing labor have good reason to do so, he said.

I hope the tide is beginning to turn, and we're moving toward an era when we don't automatically think we know more than Mother Nature.

Oxytocin Inhalant Helps Chronic Headache

Trigemina announced the results of a small clinical trial of intranasal oxytocin for headache. Twenty-five patients  with chronic daily headache who didn't get relief from any available remedies received either oxytocin or a placebo.

While 47 percent of people treated with oxytocin reported at least a 50 percent reduction in pain, only 11 percent of those getting the placebo got relief.

According to the press release, Trigemina researchers don't think it's as simple as oxytocin opening up blood vessels in the head.  Instead, inhalants seem to be able to deliver medication to the trigeminal nerve and other parts of the central nervous system.

According to the company, "Trigemina, Inc. exploits a newly discovered pathway that allows for targeting of the trigeminal nerves and central nervous system, allowing direct access to pain mediating sites and minimizing off-target side effects. Trigemina’s drug development pipeline includes intranasal oxytocin (TI-001) and TI-002, which may offer an alternative for the massive opiate market."

Williams Syndrome and Paul Zak on NPR

You probably heard this already, but ...

NPR did a really terrific story about oxytocin, trust and civilization. It started with a little girl with Williams syndrome, something I had not heard of.

According to the Williams Syndrome Foundation, "Individuals with Williams syndrome have a very endearing personality. They have a unique strength in their expressive language skills, and are extremely polite. They are typically unafraid of strangers and show a greater interest in contact with adults than with their peers."

Unfortunately, this is only one of multiple health problems caused by this syndrome.

Although it makes sense that the excessive friendliness and trust are the result of "excess oxytocin," in fact, there are no studies showing that this is the case, or how the oxytocin system is involved.

You can read and listen here:

Oxytocin No Longer the "Shy Hormone"

with Jasvir Singh

Thinking about oxytocin, once known as the shy hormone, has made a 360 degree turn. Michel Odent, a practitioner who introduced the concept of birthing pools and focuses on the long-term consequences of early experiences, writes that oxytocin is now showing up as the social hormone.


Odent claims that since the discovery of oxytocin a century ago by Henry Dale, we have been trying to understand its effects. Through the combination of various experiments and observations, oxytocin came to be known as the “shy hormone” (maybe before it became the "cuddle hormone"), because it resembled a shy person who does not appear in the presence of strangers or observers.


Couples would isolate themselves to make love, as if they knew the shy hormone would be released. Women would isolate themselves during breastfeeding and childbirth for the same reason. Women would protect the birthing experience from men as if they knew that oxytocin was shyer in a male than in a female environment.


However, this slowly changed, according to Odent. Not only have we forgotten that oxytocin is a shy hormone, but furthermore we are sending the opposite message. It is now encouraged to have coaches and support teams in birthing rooms; privacy is no longer a priority. We’ve reversed most of our ideas and are promoting a new generation of studies about oxytocin release.


This new generation of studies seems to make sense, though. We had to wait until the 1970s to discover that a newborn human baby needs its mother. . We’ve learned that the germs of the mother should be the first to colonize the baby’s body. Ad we know that mothering actually influences the sensitivity and distribution of oxytocin receptors in the baby's body.


You can read Odent’s entire article here: http://www.midirs.org/development/MIDIRSEssence.nsf/article/81B0FC4867DC184A8025768200528739?OpenDocument&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter


For more information on Michel Odent, visit www.michelodent.com

The Peptide That Binds: Overview of Human Research

UC Berkeley researchers just published a review of human oxytocin studies in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. Behavioral Health Central has a brief report. In a nutshell:

The researchers concluded: "Key conclusions are (1) human research with intranasal oxytocin has uniquely enhanced our understanding of the microstructure and function of the human social brain, and (2) the oxytocin system is a promising target for therapeutic interventions in a variety of conditions, especially those characterized by anxiety and aberrations in social function."

The paper is called The peptide that binds: a systematic review of oxytocin and its prosocial effects in humans.

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.

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?