Could oxytocin, a natural hormone, help patients suffering from anxiety and other related personality dysfunctions? Maybe. At least that is what a group of researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine believe. Oxytocin, a chemical found in the brain, plays a number of important physiological functions in all mammals. In women it facilitates labour by promoting cervical dilation and promoting uterine contractions. In addition, oxytocin helps in the expulsion of the placenta, minimizing the risks of postpartum haemorrhaging, which is still a leading cause of maternal mortality around the world. The hormone also promotes breastfeeding by stimulating the release of milk. However it is in its role as a potential bonding hormone that oxytocin has been making news lately. The feeling of bonding a mother has with her newborn is the greatest during breastfeeding when levels of oxytocin peak.
Oxytocin production also appears to be enhanced in humans during hugging, pleasant physical touching, and after orgasm. Hence the nickname of "cuddle hormone," which is often used to describe oxytocin. It is these bonding effects that stimulated scientists to study the role the molecule may have in the development of sociability traits. Most of the studies in this domain have been carried out with the prairie vole and the mountain vole, two closely related species of small mammals. The prairie vole is friendly and gregarious, whereas its close cousin the mountain vole is the total opposite, unfriendly and unsociable. Scientists were able to show that the mountain vole was deficient in receptors required to express oxytocin in the region of the brain associated with social behaviour. The role played by oxytocin in social bonding was confirmed when the same scientists blocked the oxytocin receptors in the prairie vole. The animal became as unfriendly and antisocial as the mountain vole! Based on this finding, Kai MacDonald, who leads the UCSD group, believes that oxytocin, which is already available in synthetic form (Pitocin, Syntocinon) to treat birth related problems, could act on the brain of people suffering from anxiety and increase their social comfort levels. Oxytocin is destroyed by the gastrointestinal tract and must be administered either by injection or by nasal spray. This is interesting research, but it is in its early stages. It will be some time before we see anxious people take a whiff of oxytocin rather than pop a pill.