Friday, February 01, 2013

The promise and perils of oxytocin.

Greg Miller summarizes some consequences of recent work showing that oxytocin promotes trust and cooperation, and makes people more attuned to social cues.  It has some not so sweet aspects also.  He mentions a number of the studies I've cited in previous mindblog posts (just enter oxytocin in the search box in the left column to display them):

Now psychiatrists have caught oxytocin fever...Many psychiatric conditions have social symptoms, such as the characteristic lack of empathy in autism, the attachment anxiety of borderline personality disorder, and the paranoia of schizophrenia. Yet no drugs currently approved for psychiatric use directly target social behavior...But as researchers have continued to explore the hormone's effect on human behavior, a darker side has emerged. Oxytocin seems to promote aggression or other antisocial behavior in some circumstances. Its effects also appear to vary depending on a person's genetic makeup and psychological status. And no one knows what long-term oxytocin treatment does to the developing human brain. Disconcertingly, one recent study found that male voles treated for several weeks with oxytocin nasal spray around the time of adolescence later exhibited impaired social bonding with females... thus, there is concern about giving oxytocin to children before more is known about the hormone's developmental effects.
...the more recent oxytocin research in humans has frequently found its way into tabloids. In one of the first eye-catching studies in 2005 students who got oxytocin were more trusting...A torrent of studies followed, suggesting that oxytocin not only increases trust and cooperation, but also boosts social perceptiveness, such as face recognition and the ability to read what's on someone's mind from the look in their eyes.
A number of clinical trials suggest oxytocin causes a modest improvement in children and adults with autism, also in social behavior of psychotic patients, but reservations are raised by the vole studies showing early administration of oxytocin disturbs adult bonding and reproductive behavior, and by human studies showing that while it increases altruistic behavior towards in-group individuals, it increases aggression towards out group people.

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