Oxytocin is the new alcohol – its effects on the actions of humans might be similar to the latter. Oxytocin is often associated with love and sexuality, as well as maternal bonding. However, it seems that there is more to it than what has met the eye so far.A new study has provided insight into a completely different aspect of oxytocin: its darker side. The findings have been published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
The structure of oxytocin
Oxytocin is a hormone and brain neurotransmitter synthesised by the hypothalamus. It is released in the blood by the posterior pituitary gland to control lactation and contraction of the uterus at birth. It has also been shown to affect emotion, cognition, and social behaviours such as maternal bonding, sexual arousal, anxiety, fear and trust.
Now, the researchers of the new study led by Dr. Ian Mitchell, of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham in the UK, has shown that oxytocin also enhances behaviours like altruism and empathy such that we become more willing to trust others. Furthermore, it inhibits the prefrontal and limbi cortical circuits of the brain, thereby decreasing anxiety, fear and stress.
If you are acquainted with the effects of alcohol, you can see the similarity. As a matter of fact, alcohol also brings about these changes at the level of the brain.
These influences – of both alcohol and oxytocin – happen as a result of the compounds acting on Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) signalling in the brain. This in turn affects the neural circuits controlling certain emotions.
“These neural circuits control how we perceive stress or anxiety, especially in social situations such as interviews, or perhaps even plucking up the courage to ask somebody on a date,” says Dr. Mitchell.
“Taking compounds such as oxytocin and alcohol can make these situations seem less daunting.”
Studies have suggested that alcohol helps ease one’s nerves such that fear and anxiety are overcome; oxytocin has generated similar effects.
“Oxytocin appears to mirror these effects in the lab,” explains study author Dr. Steven Gillespie, also of the School of Psychology.
Furthermore, both alcohol and oxytocin can encourage aggressive behaviour. One might tend to become more boastful and envious of others. As a consequence, one may take risks one would not have otherwise taken.
Dr. Gillespie has also commented on possible future uses of the compound.
“I don’t think we’ll see a time when oxytocin is used socially as an alternative to alcohol. But it is a fascinating neurochemical and, away from matters of the heart, has a possible use in treatment of psychological and psychiatric conditions.
“Understanding exactly how it suppresses certain modes of action and alters our behavior could provide real benefits for a lot of people. Hopefully this research might shed some new light on it and open up avenues we hadn’t yet considered.”