The Complicated Social Role of Oxytocin Again Confirmed

Oxytocin may have been given clean and tidy names such as the ‘love hormone’, the ‘trust hormone’, and the ‘cuddle hormone’, but as scientists discover more and more about this powerful molecule, it’s become increasingly clear that its complicated effects can’t be categorized and pinned down quite so neatly.

Another new study published in the last few days has again found that oxytocin can amplify aggression as well as friendliness. The researchers came to their conclusions after studying the effects of oxytocin on mice in a semi-natural setting.

In the semi-natural environment, the mice at first displayed heightened interest in one another, but this was soon accompanied by a rise in aggressive behavior. In contrast, increasing oxytocin production in the mice in classical lab conditions resulted in reduced aggression. “In an all-male, natural social setting, we would expect to see belligerent behavior as they compete for territory or food,” says Anpilov. “That is, the social conditions are conducive to competition and aggression. In the standard lab setup, a different social situation leads to a different effect for the oxytocin.”

If the ‘love hormone’ is more of a complex ‘social hormone’, then it would have huge implications for the ambitions of many to use oxytocin as a pharmacological treatment for a range of socially debilitating conditions from autism to schizophrenia.

“Oxytocin is involved, as previous experiments have shown, in such social behaviors as making eye contact or feelings of closeness,” says Eren, “but our work shows it does not improve sociability across the board. Its effects depend on both context and personality.” This implies that if oxytocin is to be used therapeutically, a much more nuanced view is needed in research: “If we want to understand the complexities of behavior, we need to study behavior in a complex environment. Only then can we begin to translate our findings to human behavior,” she says.