Bioethics Blogs

Oxytocin: The Hormone of Hype, Hope, and Healing

By Shweta Sahu

Due to his work interrogating the role of certain chemicals in vole behavior at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Dr. Larry Young has come across the problem of his results being portrayed hyperbolically, as the science sometimes goes to fictional lengths. Yet this work has important implications for mental health. To demonstrate this exaggeration as well as its potential, I am going to address: 1. the buildup of the oxytocin hype, 2. the translation of the research and 3. the ethical implications in humans.
Prairie voles, image courtesy of Flickr user theNerdPatrol

Oxytocin and pair bonding

Dr. Young researches oxytocin (OT), a neuropeptide known to be involved in birthing and associated with maternal bonding, and his lab utilizes voles as an experimental model. Their research was founded upon on the idea that prairie voles are highly social, bi-parental, and monogamous by nature while meadow voles are less social, uniparental, and promiscuous. They investigated differences in oxytocin receptor distribution in the brains of prairie voles and meadow voles and found that in the monogamous prairie voles, there are more oxytocin receptors in the reward system of the brain. Young and colleagues then injected oxytocin antagonists into the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), an area implicated in bonding and reward. They found that prairie voles, whose oxytocin receptors were blocked, would not bond when they mated.

In 2004, Dr. Young began studying the neuropeptide vasopressin. The vasopressin receptor gene (Avpr1a) is expressed in another reward area, the ventral pallidum, which was previously associated with pair bonding in monogamous prairie voles.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.