Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#218: Oxytocin, Love and Social Awareness

February 09, 2018

Oxytocin has a bit of a reputation.

Love drug.  “Moral Molecule.”  Snuggle amplifier.  (Okay, we made up that last one.)

But according to Dr. Larry Young, the narrow emphasis on romance and child-rearing is — if not missing the point — at least obscuring the point somewhat.

Because oxytocin doesn’t reward us for social behavior, or motivate that behavior directly.  Instead, it seems to underscore the idea of social in our behavioral learning.  It’s the difference between being sexually motivated and romantically captivated — to take a Valentine’s-relevant example.

And thus, our 2018 Valentine’s Episode.

We decided to revisit oxytocin — which we first covered in Episode #148 – Know Your Neurotransmitters: Oxytocin because it seemed so appropriate for the holiday.  And also because we had the chance to speak with Dr. Young, one of the world’s leading authorities on oxytocin.  He has been one of the lead researchers in many of the “oxytocin vole studies” (voles are small mouse-like mammals; see here) that highlight the behavioral differences between otherwise identical animals with many/few oxytocin receptors in their brains.

tl;dr:  If you’re an oxytocin-sensitive prairie vole, save up for a wedding ring.  If you’re an oxytocin-insensitive meadow vole, use that money to buy condoms in bulk.

This small-mammal research has potential therapeutic applications.

And that includes applications for our favorite mammal species: humans.  Says Dr. Young: “We’re really interested in trying to translate this basic science info that we’ve learned from voles into real life therapy for treating social deficits.  One of the studies we’re doing right now is, we’re trying to use this drug (melanocortin agonist named Melanotan II to induce a major oxytocin release and see if that has pro-social effects for people with autism.”

“Ultimately we would like to figure out how to use oxytocin so that autistic people’s neurochemistry is maintained in the right context so they can have long-term improvements in their social relationships in people with autism.  We can tie these mammal studies back into real people’s lives and well-being.”

There might also be benefits to be gained by down-regulating people’s sensitivity to oxytocin in some cases.  Imagine being able to chemically blunt the pain of missing a lost loved one in cases of unremitting grief, for example.  The possibilities are loaded with ethical implications – but nonetheless, quite mind-bending.

Pre-load your brain for this Valentine’s week with the latest scientific understanding of the hormone that helps turn lust to love.

The Scandalously Sexy Fruit Fly Video

The introductory audio to Episode #218 came from a how-to video for research assistants in a fruit fly mating study.  The video (just 44 seconds) is less interesting than the monotone female narrator’s voice saying things like “Record when the male first licks the female genitalia.”  A big thanks to Dr. Charles Nichols (Episode #207) for providing this video.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:33

    Episode introduction: Oxytocin, Love and Social Awareness.

  • 00:02:28

    This Week In Neuroscience: Perceived attractiveness of men in relation to women's hormone levels.

  • 00:05:29

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:06:10

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:07:42

    Guest introduction: Dr. Larry Young.

  • 00:09:47

    Interview begins.

  • 00:10:40

    Classic studies on oxytocin.

  • 00:12:39

    Features of oxytocin that generalize across species.

  • 00:14:30

    The role of the nucleus accumbens.

  • 00:15:31

    Oxytocin is not just a bonding molecule.

  • 00:17:35

    Is Oxytocin useful for remembering things that might have a negative affect?

  • 00:18:18

    Origins of oxytocin.

  • 00:19:30

    Oxytocin in dogs.

  • 00:21:10

    Oxytocin in response to feelings of connectedness.

  • 00:22:05

    Context specificity of oxytocin.

  • 00:25:54

    The popular, but overly simplistic, view of oxytocin.

  • 00:27:07

    Consideration of possible future therapeutic uses of oxytocin, along with risks that would be associated with such uses.

  • 00:30:27

    Oxytocin and maintaining relationships.

  • 00:32:05

    Individual variances related to life experiences, oxytocin release, and receptor density.

  • 00:35:07

    Oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism.

  • 00:37:26

    The establishment of different types of bonds

  • 00:38:30

    Can we mute the effects of oxytocin?

  • 00:43:00

    Two different sides of oxytocin's effects.

  • 00:44:35

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:46:13

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Do men prefer smart women?

  • 00:48:32

    Episode wrap-up.

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