Thursday, March 17, 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

The question is: Can a once-obscure hormone, synthesized and squirted up my nose, make me a more loving, generous and trusting person? Or will it just make me lactate? I'll keep you posted as the possibly disastrous, possibly hilarious Oxytocin Chronicles unfold.

   Several years ago, I was watching one of those wonderful "Nature" programs on PBS. This one was about elephants, which I have come to regard as some of the most poignant animals on Earth, although I have become quite emotionally attached to most animals, thanks to public broadcasting.
   An elephant was giving birth, and as the big little baby came slopping out of her massive behind, she turned her head to see what she had wrought. It was at this moment, the narrator said, that a hormone called oxytocin flooded the mother's bloodstream, and forged in her a strong maternal bond with her perky, adorably clumsy newborn. 
    That was my introduction to oxytocin. I learned that in the animal kingdom it not only instigates maternal behavior but also can create "pair bonding" among monogamous species and cooperative relationships among tribes of animals.
   What was interesting to me was that just as the narrator was describing the hormonal surge in the mother, I felt a surge in myself, and I felt that I was falling in love with the baby right along with her.
   I have been interested in brain chemistry for some time, probably because mine is, to put it mildly, a bit off. Oxytocin intrigued me. I came to believe that I have some of it in me -- I can feel it. It's a melty feeling, when I look at Joe or my mother or my cat -- a suffusion of tenderness. When I am jogging, I think I see a little child up ahead, standing by herself in the dark, wearing some sort of rain hat and slicker, and I can feel the beginnings of a warm release of something in me. When I realize that it's just a fire hydrant (I have terrible vision, a veritable Mrs. Magoo), the warm release is quickly sucked back into its storage facility. Sorry for the false alarm, my dear oxytocin. It won't be the last.
    I later learned that humans do indeed secrete oxytocin. It's only been in the past two years or so that I learned it has been synthesized and is available by prescription. Until 10 years ago, we didn’t even know that the brain contained oxytocin receptors, according to a Binghampton researcher. So far, it is used almost exclusively by women, to induce childbirth or stimulate lactation. As you might expect, products claiming to contain oxytocin are being peddled all over the Internet as a "love potion," but it is very unlikely that they contain any of this controlled substance.
   I have been wanting  for some time to experiment with it. I feel lots of love, but something inside me perversely holds it back or clamps it down. Maybe it's pain or fear or anger, but the fact is that despite the love I have in me, I don't very often come across as a loving person. I want to. I'm afraid the oxytocin might just trigger uterine contractions, but it seems worth the try nevertheless.

monkey love
   Oxytocin has come under intensive study in light of emerging evidence that its release contributes to the social bonding that occurs between lovers, friends, and colleagues. It may also stimulate altruistic behavior.
    Several studies in the U.S. and Europe have revealed some provocative effects of oxytocin on human behavior that are likely to lead to new treatments for depression, social anxiety, autism and aggressive, hostile temperaments.
     Oxytocin suppresses the activity of the brain region known as the amygdala, the area that processes fear and communicates it to the rest of the brain. It is produced in neurons in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that regulates many basic functions such as body temperature and hunger), and it's stored in and secreted through the pituitary gland, which plays a major role in regulation of the endocrine system.
   It has many physiologic and psychological effects, including the induction of labor in pregnant women and lactation in nursing mothers, reduction in feelings of stress (especially social stressors), reduction in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and it is a side-effect of sexual satisfaction.
   In one experiment, a small sample group of 15 men inhaled either oxytocin or a placebo before performing a task in which they sorted pictures of angry or fearful faces and threatening scenes. During the test, the researchers monitored the subjects' brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging and found that the oxytocin group showed less activity in the amygdala.
   A study published last year in Psychological Science found that oxytocin did improve powers of empathy – but only among those who were less socially proficient in the first place. The more socially comfortable participants performed well on the empathetic task regardless of whether they were on oxytocin or placebo.
    The administration of oxytocin to “investors” in experimental games increases their tendency to engage in social risks and trust someone else with their money, according to a report in Scientific American. Other studies have indicated that the hormone stimulates generosity and collaboration.
   The implications for trust, altruism and generosity have gotten the attention of a lot of scientists, but it is the "love drug" aspect that has generated the most buzz. Indeed, your natural levels rise when you are enjoying your partner -- and they rise when you are playing with your dog as well. But it remains unclear whether the ingestion of oxytocin can have any significant, lasting effect on a relationship.
    There is a theory that dopamine plays a big role in the excitement of love, and oxytocin is key for the calmer experience of long-term attachment.
   A study published last  year in Biological Psychiatry indicates that oxytocin may help human couples get along better. Swiss researchers gave 47 couples a nasal spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo. The couples then participated in a videotaped "conflict" discussion. Those who got oxytocin exhibited more positive and less negative behavior than those given the placebo. But the hormone dissipates quickly, and it has not been determined whether it can teach or encourage people to persist in the more positive behaviors.
   I've read a couple of personal accounts by people who have taken oxytocin. Neither one found it pleasant, although they really got that breast milk flowing. I wonder what it will get flowing in me. Stay tuned.