While previous research documented the peaks in oxytocin when people hug or feel supported by loved ones, the latest work documents the role the hormone may play between father and child. In a study published in Biological Psychiatry, 35 fathers played with their five month old daughters, once after being given a nasal spray containing either oxytocin and again after being given a placebo. Each time, they were instructed to engage in a task called the “still face” paradigm, which produces a small, heart-tugging drama. Researchers measured oxytocin levels in both the dads and their babies before and after the exercise.
First, the father smiles and plays with the baby, who sits in an infant seat facing him. Then he keeps his face blank and expressionless, refusing to respond as the infant makes increasingly worried attempts to re-engage him. After a few minutes of watching but ignoring the child’s distress, the dad resumes a more loving expression and reassures baby that all is well.
After receiving oxytocin, the fathers were generally more responsive to their little girls— almost certainly having a harder time keeping their faces blank during the “still face” and consequently responding far more quickly when instructed to re-engage. Under the influence of the hormone, the dads made more eye contact, provided more touch, had more mirroring and reciprocal interactions and indulged in more baby talk than after receiving placebo.
Their babies also tended to respond more to their dads who had received the oxytocin sprays—with increased smiles, laughter, mirroring and play behavior—compared to their behavior when their dads were receiving the placebo. Their own oxytocin rose in near perfect sync with the elevation of the hormone occurring in their fathers.
The results are the first to track oxytocin levels between parent and child interactions, and its potential role in framing future social interactions. Other research, primarily in animals, has shown that these early interactions and the sensitivity of parents to their children’s earliest social behaviors directly affect which genes are turned on or off in the brain. That, in turn, influences a wide range of brain systems — particularly those involved in stress and the way social contact can either relieve or worsen distress. Oxytocin seems to be critical in priming this process, so infants who generate more of the hormone through positive connections with their parents early on may be better equipped to cope with stress later in life.
In rats, those who get more licking and grooming—and therefore, release more oxytocin— are smarter, more resilient and, if female, more likely to be extra-nurturing to their own babies. The opposite is true as well, with neglect and trauma leading to impairment both in coping with stress and parenting tied to lower levels of the hormone.
Oxytocin, therefore, may be a key bridge between early nurture or lack thereof, and the development of mental illness, since early childhood trauma or neglect is also linked to an elevated risk of virtually all psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, addictions, personality disorders and even schizophrenia. As a result, researchers are interested in studying whether oxytocin could be a useful drug for treating these conditions, as well as those, such as autism, that are influenced by problems with brain development, which affect social skills.
Schizophrenia, for example, may be largely due to genetic factors or other influences in utero. Early life trauma can dramatically increase risk for the disease in those already harboring such predispositions, and those affected suffer more from problems connecting with others than from the hallucinations and delusions that tend to receive more attention. That connection is supported by two new studies presented at the recent meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, which suggest oxytocin may be especially useful in fighting the social withdrawal linked to this disease.
Dr. Josh Woolley of the University of California San Francisco studied 22 men with schizophrenia and 20 healthy participants, who were given either oxytocin or placebo in two sessions, a week apart. They were tested on two tasks: one that involved judging video clips of sarcasm and white lies; another related to the ability to perceive smells. Why smell? It turns out that smell may be linked to social facility, such that poor smell is associated with greater social deficits in people with schizophrenia.
While oxytocin didn’t affect the normal participants, it did significantly improve the ability of the people with schizophrenia to detect sarcasm and white lies. “This is really exciting because previous studies have shown that in patients with schizophrenia, it correlates with real world social behavior,” Woolley said in his presentation at the meeting. That suggests that if you give it long term, it might actually help patients make friends.” Another study presented at the meeting did find improvements in social deficits among schizophrenics when patients were given oxytocin for three weeks.
According to researchers, it’s not only schizophrenic patients who might benefit from the growing knowledge about how oxytocin works in the brain. Ron See of the Medical University of South Carolina presented data at the meeting suggesting that oxytocin might also help with methamphetamine addiction. His study, conducted in rats, adds to prior data suggesting that the hormone can relieve alcohol and opioid withdrawal, as well as possibly reducing risk for relapse.
“Oxytocin research is definitely on an uptick,” says See. And hopefully, that will lead to improved treatments for a range of diseases.