Oxytocin: Is that all there is?

Emma, Vivian

Oxytocin is a hormone that acts a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is thought to be responsible for various social behaviours, and is naturally released in mammals during hugs, kisses, lactation, childbirth and orgasm. However, oxytocin's effects go beyond intimate interactions and maternal processes, oxytocin plays a large role in attachment, monogamy and pair-bonding tendencies, fidelity, parental attachment, and even in professional social interactions - trust, which is positively correlated with oxytocin levels, is shown to increase success in business interactions. There are questions that arise from the study of oxytocin's function in the brain, primarily, is oxytocin all there is to romantic love? Parental love? Trust? These articles address the function of oxytocin in various circumstances, and can help address the possibilities of supplementing oxytocin.


Key Terms

Oxytocin: a hormone produced by the hypothalamus secreted by the pituitary gland that acts as a neurotransmitter in he brain. It is involved in social, emotional and cognitive behaviours.

Attachment: The process of forming an emotional bond, influenced by oxytocin, that affects personality development and the lifelong ability to form stable relationships.

Monogamy: a system of mating in which only two individuals mate without a third party.

Pair-bond: Consist of two types: social and sexual pair bond.
Sexual pair-bond: In this bond, the sexual pair prefer to have sex with each other over other options.
Social pair-bond: a relationship between a pair that is different from other general friendships or acquaintance relationships, in terms of physiology and emotion.

Relationship: A continuous bond that forms between individuals and has some influence on the actions and feelings of others.

The role of oxytocin in romantic attachment

Oxytocin plays an indispensable role in romantic attachment, and monogamous pair-bonding. The following articles contain information that addresses the role of oxytocin in sexual interaction, monogamy and pair-bonding, fidelity, and attachment. The possibility of supplementing oxytocin in humans as a way to enhance romantic relationships is also addressed, which helps answer the question: Could you give someone oxytocin and make them fall in love with you? The information contained in this section would lead the reader to believe that it is ultimately impossible; however, supplementing oxytocin could potentially increase feelings of love and closeness in an existing relationship.

Speculations on the links between feelings, emotions and sexual behaviour: are vasopressin and oxytocin involved?
Hiller, Janice. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 19.4 (Nov 2004).

Hiller analyses the link between subjective experience and physiological responses during sexual activity. After reviewing the neurophysiology of attachment, love and bonding in rodents, Hiller finds that oxytocin and vasopressin is integral to partner preference and bonding. In laboratory studies on hormonal release in human activity, oxytocin plays a role in the subjective pleasure during arousal and orgasm. She describes love as an affective process that is a prime motivator for human behavior, and that it can be discussed outside of love songs and poetry, as an actual neurochemical phenomenon. After studies done on rodents and prairie voles that share a similar cortical structure to humans, she concludes that oxytocin is largely responsible with feelings of pleasure. Laboratory observations on humans confirm the subjective experience of pleasure which differs among sexes, females, for example, are more aroused by romantic themes, contrary to men, who are typically are not – oxytocin along with other neuropeptides are partly responsible for this subjective experience.
The research was conducted over several time spans, in various locations on rodents, and rarie voles, as well as investigations on humans.
The article is very well organized and easy to read, Hiller structures it by study, and by neuropeptide, discussing the rodent experiments, and the human investigations by first discussing oxytocin, then vasopressin, along with other neuropeptides and hormones.
What should be drawn from this article is the importance of oxytocin on both physiological responses, but more importantly, on subjective experience. This article shows that some subjective experience that cause women and men to be aroused by different stimuli, is not entirely attributed to cultural influence, but is neurochemical as well. This information can help investigate the concept of love, and if it can be attributed to oxytocin. Along with further research, we can find out if oxytocin can be isolated and prescribed as something that can make someone fall in love, and experience these subjective sexual experiences. Also, according to Hiller, oxytocin plays a role in reducing anxiety in order to facilitate sexual reproduction, oxytocin in relation to anxiety is something that will also be researched.

Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples' interactive reciprocity.
Schneiderman, Inna; Zagoory-Sharon, Orna; Leckman, James F.; Feldman, Ruth .Psychoneuroendocrinology 37.8 (Aug 2012): 1277-1285.

This article discusses a study that was done in to investigate attachment and pair-bonding among new couples, as related to interactive reciprocity. The study analysed oxytocin plasma in 60 new couples that were approximately three months into a relationship, and 43 non-committed singles, and it was found that oxytocin was significantly higher in new couples, as compared to the singles. Six months later the couples that stayed together were analysed for oxytocin plasma again and interviewed for romantic themes, and it was found that the high level of oxytocin did not decrease from the initiation of a relationship, and that it contributed to themes of reciprocity. In this particular study, it was found that oxytocin plasma was consistent with men and women, without a drastic difference between sexes (Table 1). Ultimately, what was concluded from this study is that oxytocin plays a significant role in the early stages of attachment, and high levels of oxytocin encourage reciprocity.

~Table 1 Plasma OT Concentrations in Singles and New Lovers at the Initial Stage of Romantic Attachment and Six Months Later.~
OT Levels (pg/mL) Means (SD) (pg/mL) Minimum (pg/mL) Maximum (pg/mL) N
Singles Women 263.76 (240.68) 114.10 1196.20 23
Single Men 250.98 (245.10) 124.30 1255.03 20
New Lovers-Women 509.83 (228.67) 180.36 1620.00 53
New Lovers-Men 480.76 (211.58) 219.28 1331.74 60
New Lovers-Women 469.69 (210.94) 81.46 1046.09 21
New Lovers-Men 505.30 (296.29) 218.12 1413.48 25

The information from this article can be used in the discussion about monogamy in romantic relationships. The results from this study support the hypothesis that oxytocin plays a large part in feelings of attachment, and coincide with the romantic themes that were seen during interviews with the new couple group. This information along with Janice Hiller’s conclusion that the feeling of love can be partly attributed to surges of oxytocin can be used to discuss that the social conceptions of love, attachment, and monogamy could be largely attributed to oxytocin.

Could intranasal oxytocin be used to enhance relationships? Research imperatives, clinical policy, and ethical considerations.
Wudarczyk, Olga A.; Earp, Brian D.; Guastella, Adam ; Savulescu, Julian. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 26.5 (Sep 2013): 474-484.

This article is describing a study that investigates the effects of neuropeptide modulation in order to sustain a relationship. Well-funtioning romantic relationships are integral to good health and well-being, but due to tensions that arise both internally and biologically as well as from external pressures, there may be a need for assistance in maintaining these relationships. Oxytocin as a modulator of human attachment could be a way of maintaining these relationships. Researchers theorized that since oxytocin is largely responsible for promoting socially monogamous behavior and inhibiting anxious, defensive, and fearful behavior that detracts from bonding, perhaps artificial oxytocin could be administered in order to promote a healthy relationship, and sustain it. A study that administered intra-nasal oxytocin in order to enhance relationships found that oxytocin increased prosocial behaviours such as mind-reading, trust, and eye-contact, while decreasing stress, fear and anxiety. In a study done on oxytocin-primed males in a committed heterosexual relationship (not single maeles) that were exposed to erotic material, were found to show a decreased reflexive response to erotic material, which could indicate that oxytocin could also be responsible for inclinations towards fidelity. The authors conclude that despite some negative side-effects, and possible ethical implications, there is significant reason to believe that oxytocin based relationship therapy could be effective for sustaining a healthy monogamous relationship.
The information found in this article will directly address the question about using oxytocin in order to supplement a healthy relationship. In the discussion of love and attachment, which is debatably largely a matter of oxytocin plasma in the brain, this article addresses an instance of how administering oxytocin affects people in relationships can be a way of improving it, isolating the effects that are resulted from the neuropeptide will be useful in attempt to address exactly what oxytocin illicits in relationships.

Oxytocin enhances brain reward system responses in men viewing the face of their female partner.
Scheele, Dirk; Wille, Andrea; Kendrick, Keith M.; Stoffel-Wagner, Birgit; Becker, Benjamin; et al.

The article outlines an experiment that sought to investigate oxytocin in pair-bonded males. In a placebo-controlled test of 20 pair-bonded heterosexual males that were given a 24 IU dose of intranasal oxytocin upon viewing photos of various women, including photos of their significant other, found their mate more attractive then usual, whereas their impression of the other women was not affected. The study confirmed that oxytocin increases pair-bonding reciprocity and monogamy.
This article is useful in relation to the article above that outlines the use of intranasal oxytocin including positive and negative side-effects. This study confirms the conclusion that is drawn from the previous article about enhancing relationships through oxytocin therapy, by confirming that oxytocin promotes positive partner bias

The role of oxytocin in parental attachment


Oxytocin release is imperative in the bonding between parents and children. The following articles address how oxytocin affects parenting ability, the impact of beastfeeding on children, and addresses the issue of adoptive parents, and their ability to parent. Oxytocin is a common variable in all these instances when it comes to parental attachment, and parenting ability. These articles provide information that can help the writer address the possibility of using oxytocin to repair a strained parent-child bond.

Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans
Ilanit Gordon, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, James F. Leckman, Ruth Feldman

There is a common belief that maternal bonds and the instinct to care for a child are largely due to the production of oxytocin during pregnancy and postpartum; however, there is little research that has addressed the involvement of oxytocin in the transition to fatherhood. This study examines the oxytocin level in both the male and female parent during the first postpartum weeks of their first born child. The study concluded that there was an overall parental oxytocin increase and there was no difference between maternal and paternal oxytocin levels. Only during specific physiological processes, such as sexual intercourse or breastfeeding lead to a rise in oxytocin (for a short duration). However, oxytocin differs in it’s association with paternal and maternal behaviour. Paternal oxytocin correlated with stimulatory and object oriented play while maternal oxytocin correlated with maternal gaze and affectionate touch. The information from this article can be used to challenge preconceived ideas of oxytocin within the context of paternal bonding.


Does breastfeeding protect against substantiated child abuse and neglect? A 15
year cohort study

Lane Strathearn, Abdullah A. Mamun, Jake M. Najman, and Michael J. O’Callaghan

This article examines whether breastfeeding may protect against maternally perpetrated neglect. Breastfeeding is known to stimulate oxytocin release which is associated with maternal responsiveness, reduce physiological stress (reduction in negative mood) and increase maternal-fetal attachment. Strathearn hypothesized that the absence of breastfeeding during the infant’s first six months would increase the probability of maternally perpetrated child maltreatment. The results of this study shows a strong correlation between the duration of breastfeeding and the odds of maternal abuse or neglect. Of 512 children with maltreatment reports, over 60% experienced maternally perpetrated abuse or neglect and odds of maternal neglect in non-breastfed children were 4.8 times the odds for children breastfed 4 or more months. The article concludes that breastfeeding duration is one of the many factors that are associated with maternal abuse/neglect. Other factors would include financial stability, level of education etc. This study can be used to examine the question of, “Oxytocin, is that all there is?”, in relation to maternal bonding and child rearing as the correlation between breastfeeding and substantiated child abuse would suggest that oxytocin has a role in the mother-child bond.

Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: implications for adopted children and their mothers
Karleen D Gribble

This article focuses on discussing the various implications of breastfeeding adopted children. The author discusses both nutritional, and non-nutritional effects on the child. Of the non-nutritional effects, the release of oxytocin during breastfeeding can contribute to attachment between the mother and the child. However, the release of oxytocin in the mother can actually help her be a better parent, oxytocin is known to be essential for the expression of maternal behaviour. Adoptive mothers reported that breastfeeding has softened their attitude towards their child, and created a feeling of closeness and oneness with the child, that otherwise may have not been there. Despite other hormones at play, the oxytocin released during breastfeeding is conclusively a dominant factor in the maternal closeness that is experienced by adoptive mothers.
What can be drawn from this article in order to address the issue at hand, is that oxytocin may be the main reason for parental attachments. This article has information that could help address the possibility of supplementing oxytocin in adoptive parents in order to create stronger bonds that may not have otherwise been possible.

Oxytocin and prosocial/anti-social behaviour

Oxytocin is shown to increase pro-social behaviour and decrease defensive mechanisms that impede on social interactions. The following articles address various aspects of social behaviour that are affected by oxytocin - such as trust, prejudice, and anxiety and mood disorders. These articles find that oxytocin plays a significant role in decreasing stress, anxiety and fear, which in turn increase pro-social behaviour, and social success, which results in higher feelings of trust. With this information, it is possible to address the possibility of supplementing oxytocin to facilitate social interactions, or even as a tool for reducing general anxiety.

Does intranasal oxytocin promote prosocial behaviour to an excluded fellow player? A randomized-controlled trial with cyberball.
Riem, M. M. E., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M., Huffmeijer, R., & van IJzendoorn, M. H.

The experiment involved a virtual ball throwing game called “Cyberball”. This experiment examined oxytocin’s influence on prosocial helping behaviour toward a socially excluded participant. The participants were women with a variety of early experiences with caregiving, for example, in the experiences of some women their mothers would use love withdrawal as a disciplinary strategy after a failure or misbehaviour. The women received oxytocin (or a placebo) intranasally.
The results show that participants compensated for the other players’ exclusion of the excluded player by throwing the ball more often to the excluded player. The results indicated that the positive effects of oxytocin in prosocial behaviour were limited to individuals with positive early experiences with caregiving. What can be drawn from this article is that oxytocin may not be the solution to promote prosocial behaviour. Although it may be able to enhance social behaviour for for some, oxytocin’s effects appears to be limited by one’s prior experiences with caregiving, addressing the question of whether oxytocin can be used to treat anti-social behaviour.


Oxytocin increases trust in humans
Kosfeld, Michael;Heinrichs, Markus;Zak, Paul J;Fischbacher, Urs;Fehr, Ernst Nature; Jun 2, 2005; 435, 7042; ProQuest Central pg. 673

Trust is a pervasive factor in all aspects of society, families, communities, friendships, economies, governments – an increase in trust is correlated to an increase in success. However, the biological basis among humans is not yet thoroughly investigated. After a study done by administering intranasal oxytocin to humans it was found that oxytocin, a neuropeptide that is known to increase attachment, also increased trust in humans, and thus benefits from social interactions. The study also found that investors had increased trust and decreased betrayal aversion, which is typically high among investors.
What the information from this article can tell the reader is that if artificial oxytocin can be administered in order to increase trust, and social success, then perhaps it is possible that people who suffer from social anxiety, and have difficulty trusting people close to them, could be helped with intranasal oxytocin. This could be applied in romantic relationships that face turbulence due to a lack of trust, and high betrayal aversion, as well as parental relationships between parents and adopted children, who may have lacked other forms of bonding from the parents. The correlation between oxytocin in the brain and increased trust can lead the reader to believe that oxytocin could be responsible for the subjective experiential feelings of closeness in various relationships.


Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism
Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J. J. Handgraaf

This article discusses oxytocin’s role in the promotion of in-group favouritism and out-group derogation, associated with racism and xenophobia. A series of experiments were preformed on indigenous Dutch men who were administered oxytocin (or a placebo) intranasally to determine whether the hypothesis: “oxytocin creates intergroup bias because oxytocin promotes in-group favouritism and out- group derogation”. The first experiments used word associations with positive words about the in-groups (Dutch) and negative words about Arabs (out-group). The second experiment asked participants to preform the same task, however the experimenters replaced the out-group with Germans. Both experiments concluded that oxytocin creates intergroup bias because it promotes in-group favouritism, however did not indicate whether it also promotes out-group derogation. In the last set of experiments was the Moral Choice Dilemma Task, which presented the participants with a series of choices that required the sacrifice of members of the in-group and members of the out-groups.
The conclusion of this experiment was that the males administered with oxytocin were more likely to sacrifice out-group targets than in-group targets. This study can be used to discuss the possibility of supplementing oxytocin in order to promote prosocial behaviour as this article concludes that oxytocin does strengthen the development of trust, empathy and pro-sociality-however these tendencies are limited to individuals that belong within the person’s in-group.

Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Oxytocin reduces background anxiety in a fear-potentiated startle paradigm
Missig, G., Ayers, L. W., Schulkin, J., & Rosen, J. B.

Oxytocin in low dosages has been proposed to have decrease startle and background anxiety. Therefore oxytocin has the potential to treat an exaggerated startle reflex associated with anxiety disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the study, oxytocin was given to fear conditioned rats, either before, immediately after or 30 minutes before fear potentiated startle testing. The results concluded that oxytocin does not diminish learned fear to a conditioned stimulus but did diminish background anxiety, as hypothesized. Therefore, oxytocin can potentially be used to treat startle without impacting learning or the memory of a traumatic event as because of its anxiolytic effect. The conclusion of the experiment would inform the reader that synthetic oxytocin can be used for treating for disorders associated with startle such as PTSD.

Plasma oxytocin levels and anxiety in patients with major depression
G. Scantamburloa,, M. Hansenneb , S. Fuchsa , W. Pitchota , P. Mare´chala , C. Pequeuxc , M. Ansseaua , J.J. Legrosc

This article follows a study that analysed oxytocin plasma in patients with anxiety and major depression. Oxytocin rich brains are less likely to suffer from depression because oxytocin is a potent antistress hormone and promotes social behaviour. Depressive symptoms such as social withdrawal, reduced appetite, and cognitive impairment has been found to reflect oxytocin function in the brain. According to a study done on 25 sufferers of depression that compare their rating on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) to plasma oxytocin in the brain (plasma OT), there is a strong negative correlation between oxytocin levels and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
This information can inform the writer about the role of oxytocin in social behaviour, specifically related to anxiety and depression, with this information the writer can address the possibility of treating these disorders with oxytocin, which is not a common practice at the time being.


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Wudarczyk, O. A., Earp, B. D., Guastella, A., & Savulescu, J. (2013). Could intranasal oxytocin be used to enhance relationships? research imperatives, clinical policy, and ethical considerations. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 26(5), 474-484. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0b013e3283642e10

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