What is Oxytocin?
The pituitary gland in the brain produces a protein neuropeptide hormone called oxytocin. Studies conducted on animals and even more recently on human subjects have demonstrated that oxytocin is also a brain neurotransmitter. This later function has been recently discovered and the medical scientific community has taken an interest in research being done using this hormone.
Clinical Use of Oxytocin
Two very important, well-studied and undisputed function of oxytocin in women of reproductive age have been the:
- Regulation of childbirth
- Regulation of breast feeding
These two functions have earned oxytocin the name of the “great facilitator of life” because of the role it plays in propagating the species (childbirth) and enhancing the survival of newborns (breastfeeding).
Pitocin which is a synthetic form of oxytocin is used by obstetricians to induce labor and strengthen uterine contractions.
Other Potential Clinical Uses of Oxytocin
In recent times scientists have been researching other functions of oxytocin on human subjects. Once there is an increase of oxytocin in the blood the effect is not exerted only on the uterus and mammary glands. It has been demonstrated that oxytocin acts on a part of the brain called the amygdala which plays a major role on social, cognitive and emotional behaviors.
There is a body of research which shows a strong association between oxytocin and increased protective, caring, bonding behavior among non-human mammals. Even as clinical trials continue to be done, oxytocin is being used in neuropsychiatric clinics to treat a range of neuropsychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety and phobias.
Research Findings using oxytocin on human subjects
In a review done by Inga Neumann it was deduced that oxytocin positively impacted social behavior that contribute to the fostering of:
- Psychological stability
Other researchers Insel, T. R. and Fernald, R.D. in 2004 demonstrated that not only oxytocin alone has an effect on social behavior but also vasopressin. This was published in the Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 27:697-722. The findings of these and other research have strengthen the interest to do more clinical research to explore the therapeutic effect oxytocin has on a malfunctioning amygdala and by extension social dysfunctional behavior.
The potential use and efficacy of oxytocin to enhance well-being and interpersonal interactions is indeed exciting as there may be other neuropsychiatric disorders that could be improved applying oxytocin. These neuropsychiatric illnesses include behaviors of:
- Repetitive habits
- General lack of trust
- Avoidance of social interactions
- Persistent fear/Irrational phobias
Two such groups of illnesses which exhibit the above behaviors are autism spectrum disorder and anxiety disorder.
What is Autism?
Children with autism are less able to interact with the world as their normal peers. They exhibit deficits in three major functions:
- Social awareness and interactions
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
- Imaginative play demonstrating variable behaviors and interests
The term autism spectrum disorder acknowledges that there is a range of functionality seen in children with autism. At one end of the spectrum some children function at a high level while those at the lower end exhibit the classic deficits.
Potential Use of Oxytocin to treat Autism
Oxytocin was used as an intranasal application in a 2013 study of 17 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging diagnostics found that the oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficit seen in autistic children.
Researchers Kosfeld, M., et al concluded that oxytocin has the potential to increase trust in humans and therefore augment the benefits that can arise from social interactions. The oxytocin acts on the amygdala to reduce the autonomic and behavioral manifestations fear. This finding that oxytocin can modulate neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans has spawned intense interest in further research on persons diagnosed with autism.
The intranasal application makes use very convenient. Information on dosage and frequency of use especially for the pediatric group will encourage more interest among main stream health professionals and parents/guardians of autistic children. We must also be prepared to discuss not only the benefits but also possible side effects and contraindications.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is described as a mood disorder which is characterized by frequent, irrational worries and fears which can be sometimes specific or multiple. An individual can become so overwhelmed by persistent worries that they disrupt normal behavior and function. The overarching behaviour observed in Anxiety Disorders is the fearful reaction to persons and situations.
General symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- tense muscles
- inability to focus
Treatment involves the use of combination therapy of behavior modification and medication:
- Psychotherapy which is essentially talk therapy which trained mental health professionals.
- Cognitive –behavior therapy CBT is a technique which teaches persons to recognize and change harmful thought patterns.
- Life-style changes includes managing stress, exercise and dietary changes
- Relaxation therapy
There is a wide range of anxiolytics used to treat anxiety disorders but the side effects, addictions and rebound effects are well known.
Potential Use of Oxytocin Supplement to Treat Anxiety
Brain oxytocin has been shown to reduce the stress response which causes anxiety. It has been demonstrated in research that oxytocin reduces amygdala activity. The amygdala is the part of the brain which responds to potential danger by triggering the fear response. Kirsch P et al showed that oxytocin can modulate the activity of the amygdala and reduce the coupling of the amygdala to brainstem regions implicated in autonomic and behavioral manifestations of fear.
In a Psychopharmacology 2011 publication a research paper presented results from a study which involved applying intranasal oxytocin to a study group. The researchers noted that the effect of the oxytocin made subjects more extroverted, improved self-perception in social settings and amplified personality traits of trust warmth, openness and altruism.
Finally the use of oxytocin help persons with neuropsychiatric conditions is very promising. This biomedical therapy for both patients living with anxiety disorders as well as the health professionals who treat these conditions. The use of oxytocin as part of the therapy for autistic children is exciting.
Further research will help to establish dose-response, and the efficacy of the intranasal administration of the drug for the treatment of both autism and anxiety.
In the interim one should safeguard against outlandish claims. Combination therapies give the best outcomes for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders.
By combination therapy we refer to biomedical treatment and early Applied Behavior Analysis ABA therapy interventions, Relationship Development Intervention RDI, Sensory Integration and other therapies.
– Third Party Doctor written for Khemcorp
- Oxytocin increases trust in humans, Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E.
- Impact of prosocial neuropeptides on human brain function, Meyer-Lindenberg
- Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans, Kirsch P, Esslinger C, Chen Q, Mier D, Lis S, Siddhanti S, Gruppe H, Mattay VS, Galhofer B, Meyer-Lindenberg A
- Oxytocin reduces amygdala activity, increases social interactions, and reduces anxiety-like behavior irrespective of NMDAR antagonism, Sobota R, MiharaT, Forrest A, Featherstone RE, Siegel SJ
- Effect of intranasal oxytocin administration on psychiatric symptoms: A meta-Analysis of placebo-controlled studies, Hoffmann SG, Fang A, Brager DN
- What is oxytocin, and what does it do?, Oxytocin as potential psychiatric therapy, Markus MacGill