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When the Cuddle Hormone Is a Home Wrecker

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Karen Bales with prairie voles

First off, this study on a molecule tied to social interaction was conducted in animals. So I’m supposed to turn on the siren and the flashing red light here to let you know that the headline you just read might not apply in humans. Still, the animals in question,  prairie voles, are a special case, models of faithfulness that put humans to shame when it comes to the delicate topic of monogamy. Once hitched, the rodents stick with their mates for life—an example of  moral pulchritude in the animal kingdom that many of us human sinners can never hope to emulate. It could easily become the state animal for whole regions of the U.S.

For just that alone, the implications of the experiment in question are particularly intriguing. The new research shows that oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is sometimes capable of turning the upstanding rodent into an anti-social lout, making the study results more compelling in many ways than if they were reported in errant humans. So the man-bites-dog headline stays.

This all came up when Karen Bales, a professor at University of California, Davis, wanted to know what would happen if oxytocin gets administered for lengthy intervals, not the short-term dosing that has occurred in the multitude of previous vole studies that linked the hormone to monogamous behavior.

In their experiment, Bales and team gave either a low, medium or high dose through the nose to 29 voles, and a saline solution to 14 controls  At first, the animals became all cuddly as in previous studies But after three weeks,  an entire vole childhood  (from weaning to sexual maturity), they started breaking bad.  Males did not engage in the normal behavior of “pair bonding,” that drives them to look for the girl of their dreams.  And female voles’ natural mothering instinct seemed to disappear: when placed nearby young pups that were not their own, they didn’t dote, as they are wont to do. The cuddle hormone had turned the rodents into meanies.

Bales presented her work along with her graduate student Allison Perkeybile at the giant annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in New Orleans and the results are being published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.  Just a vole study perhaps, but it might have some implications for use of the hormone in humans. Multiple clinical trials are under way to test oxytocin as a treatment for the social dysfunction that occurs in developmental disorders like  autism and schizophrenia.  Some physicians are already prescribing it off-label and it has taken on a cult status. Social commentator Naomi Wolfe, for one, called it “women’s emotional superpower.” And, of course, the buzz has fueled online sales.

The study showed one off-kilter effect that warrants caution for a parent that might want to try a little spritz up the nose of  an autistic child. “I think the scariest thing to me was that the worst anti-social effects were at the lowest dose,” Bale says. ” And what’s also scary is that if you take your kid to the doctor, you’re going to want to start out at the lowest dose.”

“I don’t think we can count out oxytocin,” she continues, “but we have to be very careful with the dosing.” As always, more research is needed. Bales would like to know what would have happened if the animals had continued to receive the hormone as they matured. Until researchers come closer to an answer, though, it might be best to stay far away from the cuddle juice.




Image Source: Kathy West/University of California, Davis



Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. HubertB 7:52 pm 10/17/2012

    So the lesson from this experiment boils down to the fact that oxytocin should not be started during infancy. Probably that is not a good time to start a child on alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana either.

    Link to this

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