Oxytocin Examined as Potential Anxiety, Depression Treatment

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Oxytocin may have different effects on stress in men and women, and in some cases, may actually trigger anxiety, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry.

In research by Michael Steinman, a doctoral student at University of California Davis, and Brian Trainor, PhD, professor and director of the Behavioral Neuroendocrinology Lab, and colleagues, male and female mice were administered doses of oxytocin with a nasal spray. Some of the mice were bullied by an aggressive mouse, which reduces motivation to interact with unfamiliar mice. The researchers observed how the oxytocin spray would affect the mice’s stress and motivation for social interaction in both stressed and un-stressed mice.

Consistent with previous studies, oxytocin increased male mice’s motivation for social interaction. However, in stressed female mice, oxytocin had no effect, and in non-stressed female mice, oxytocin reduced social motivation.

The researchers found that stress affected the production of oxytocin differently in males and females. After stress, nerve cells in the brains of female mice produced more oxytocin, but did not in males. In addition, oxytocin-producing cells were also more active in females that experienced stress.

Previous clinical studies have found that women with depression or PTSD have elevated oxytocin levels, which has been thought to show an increased drive for social support. But these results suggest a different possibility.

"Our results show that stressed females have both reduced social motivation and increased oxytocin. It's possible that oxytocin might contribute to a depression-like syndrome in females," Dr. Trainor said. "If correct, inhibiting oxytocin action might have unanticipated benefits."

The researchers also noted that oxytocin exposure in familiar environments reduced stress in males and females. They also noted that while many clinical studies investigating oxytocin treatment only include men, it is important to include both men and women, and that oxytocin might have different effects depending on whether it is administered by a familiar or unfamiliar person.

Oxytocin Examined as Potential Anxiety, Depression Treatment
Oxytocin increased male mice's motivation for social interaction, though in stressed female mice, oxytocin had no effect.

Clinical trials are testing whether oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" for its role in intimacy and social bonding, has potential as a treatment for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. New research by behavioral neuroscientists Michael Steinman, Brian Trainor and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, suggests oxytocin may have different effects in men and women--and in certain circumstances the hormone may actually trigger anxiety.

In a series of experiments at the UC Davis Department of Psychology, the team administered doses of oxytocin with a nasal spray to male and female mice. Some of the mice were bullied by an aggressive mouse, an experience that reduces motivation to associate with unfamiliar mice. Consistent with previous studies, oxytocin increased the motivation for social interaction in stressed males.

However, in stressed females, oxytocin had no effect. When non-stressed females received oxytocin, social motivation was reduced. This effect of oxytocin is similar to the effect of social stress.

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