Oxytocin is often called “the love hormone”. Released in the brain, multiple studies have shown that it is important for emotional and social bonds in humans.
However, recent research published in the Neuron journal reveals otherwise.
In this project, scientists from Stanford University and the University of California used a rodent breed called prairie vole to examine the role of oxytocin. Like humans, they are monogamous and also have bi-parental care.
A gene editing technique called CRISPR was used to target and change specific genes in the DNA. By doing this, the author was able to form prairie voles without functional oxytocin receptors.
The main goal was to identify whether the mutant entities show defections in pair bonding by having sexually inexperienced female and male voles together for 1 week. At the same time, the scientists examined their ability to care for the babies.
Those prairie voles who lack oxytocin receptors tended to spend more time with their partners when being exposed to non-mutant, unfamiliar factors. In addition, they were aggressive to the unfamiliar voles of the other sex.
Another finding was that mutant vole parents spend most of their time taking care of their babies.
In the report, the researchers suggest that their results were consistent in 3 different labs.
Overall, this study shows surprising results that challenge long-held beliefs that oxytocin plays an important role in pair bonding in prairie voles.
The authors believe that prairie voles typically produce oxytocin during social circumstances and gradually depend on this hormone. In contrast, those without oxytocin never release oxytocin, and thus are not regulated by this substance.
Based on previous studies, clinical trials are tried to use oxytocin to treat some psychiatric diseases related to social attachment behaviors, such as autism. However, these studies have mixed results.
While the authors believe that their results would help explain these inconsistencies, other scientists express strong caution. In general, it would be risky and challenging to eradicate a lot of data on the part of oxytocin in bonding over the past decades.
However, it is still important to acknowledge that the study’s results would justify further research to understand the molecular processes that affect social attachment behaviors.
The authors think that the latest genetic models will allow for more comprehensive scrutiny of the circuit and molecular processes that affect attachment behavior in those with neuropsychiatric conditions.