Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oxytocin: love potion #9.1

Supposed you were to pick-out an arbitrary person from your country. Would you trust them? The development of trust is essential for appropriate social interactions, thus why Paul Zak investigates how people come to trust one another. There is a neurochemical, oxytocin, which influences an individual's propensity to trust a stranger under neutral conditions.[1] Oxytocin has been identified as relevant to a whole host of activities, and probably also to the advantages of social ties:
"Social ties are known to reduce morbidity and mortality, and those who engage in more social interactions are less stressed physiologically. Animal models identify a prominent role for the neuroactive hormone oxytocin (OT) in facilitating various social behaviors, including social recognition, maternal attachment, and, in some species, pair bonding. Recent work has demonstrated that oxytocin infusion and social support during public speaking reduces stress responses."[2]
So where does this magic neurochemical come from? "Oxytocin is a nine amino acid peptide that is synthesized in hypothalamic neurons and transported down axons of the posterior pituitary for secretion into blood. [It] is "also secreted within the brain and from a few other tissues."[3] The hypothalamus releases oxytocin into the blood by means of the pituitary gland, though it can also be delivered directly to parts of the brain or spinal cord, there binding with special oxytocin receptors which allow it to influence physiology and behavior.[4]

After understanding at least some of the natural effects of oxytocin, the question of whether it can be artificially administered to affect behavior or solve some medical problem becomes an issue. There are some studies on harnassing oxytocin for medical use:
"Adults diagnosed with autism or Asperger's disorder who received oxytocin injections showed an improved ability to identify emotional content on a speech comprehension task, while those on a placebo did not.[4]"
Eric Hollander, the medical doctor doing this research, thinks such "findings suggest that oxytocin might facilitate social information processing in those with autism, and provide preliminary support for the use of oxytocin in the treatment of autism."[4]

Another interesting theory on the effects of oxytocin comes from Sue Carter, co-director of the Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Oxytocin, acting in part through effects on the autonomic nervous system, might allow what other researchers have termed, 'immobility without fear.' She writes, "In other words, oxytocin may in general protect the nervous system from shutting down in the face of stressful circumstances, especially those that require holding still rather than fighting or fleeing."[4]

Given the above observation, perhaps well-timed injections of oxytocin would be of benefit to military members hoping to control stress during combat operations. The military is well known to use pharmaceuticals to enhance mission effectiveness, and this might be one more opportunity for such activity. Oddly enough, such use might also have the side-effect of making the soldier-recipients of these injections more trusting, generous, and social than they might otherwise be,[5] thus changing their whole attitude in evaluating the threat-level of enemy forces. "Make love, not war; do unto others, dude," is hardly an effective battle cry.



[1] Paul J. Zak "The Neurobiology of Trust" Scientific American (May 2008), p.95

[2] Paul J. Zak, Robert Kurzban, and William Matzner "The Neurobiology of Trust" New York Academy of Sciences. (2004) 1032: 224–227 (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[3] "Oxytocin" Hypertexts for Biomedical Sciences (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[4] Tori DeAngelis "The two faces of oxytocin" Monitor on Psychology 39:2 February 2008. (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[5] "Can oxytocin promote trust and generosity?" Monitor on Psychology 39:2 February 2008. (Accessed 10/16/2008)

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At 12:31 AM, Blogger The Wanderer said...

While I would like to say that I generally trust people, I tend to functionally operate from a mode of distrust. Perhaps this means that I do not trust people as much as I have previously stated. [The hidden premise being that our actions are indicative of our belief structures].


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