The Frontal Cortex


I was on the Takeaway last week talking about this study:

We examined the role of serotonin transporter (5-HTT) and oxytocin receptor (OXTR) genes in explaining differences in sensitive parenting in a community sample of 159 Caucasian, middle-class mothers with their 2-year-old toddlers at risk for externalizing behavior problems, taking into account maternal educational level, maternal depression and the quality of the marital relationship. Independent genetic effects of 5-HTTLPR SCL6A4 and OXTR rs53576 on observed maternal sensitivity were found. Controlling for differences in maternal education, depression and marital discord, parents with the possibly less efficient variants of the serotonergic (5-HTT ss) and oxytonergic (AA/AG) system genes showed lower levels of sensitive responsiveness to their toddlers. Two-way and three-way interactions with marital discord or depression were not significant. This first study on the role of both OXTR and 5-HTT genes in human parenting points to molecular genetic differences that may be implicated in the production of oxytocin explaining differences in sensitive parenting.

It’s certainly interesting work, and builds on a large body of data showing that perfusing the brain with oxytocin (often via a nasal spray) leads to more generous offers in the ultimatum game, causes prairie voles to instantly pair bond and can, in general, serve as a social lubricant. (In other words, it’s like alcohol without the drunkenness.) This new study found an intriguing correlation between mothers with a less efficient serotonin transporter gene (which modulates the release of oxytocin) and various measures of maternal nurturing, such as the number of times a baby is cuddled. For me, the most interesting aspect of such research is how it demonstrates the sheer difficulty of breaking such damaging social cycles. Let’s say, for instance, that mothers with these genetic variants really are less responsive and sensitive to their children. Other research suggests that infants suffering from childhood neglect suffer from reduced oxytocin and vasopressin levels later on in childhood. The absence of love leaves a biological scar, which is then inflicted on the next generation and so on.

This depressing hypothesis is backed up some even more depressing primate research. As Harry Harlow demonstrated decades ago, baby monkeys forced to live with an unresponsive wire mother didn’t know how to deal with others, sympathize with strangers or behave in a socially acceptable manner. They would start fights without provocation and they wouldn’t stop fighting until one of the monkeys had been seriously injured. They were even vicious to their own children. One monkey raised by a wire-mother bit off the fingers of her child. Another killed her crying baby by crushing its head in her mouth. Most of these scarred mothers, however, just perpetuated the devastating cycle of cruelty. When their babies tried to cuddle, they would push them away. As Harlow would later write, “If monkeys have taught us anything it’s that you’ve got to learn how to love before you learn how to live.”

That said, oxytocin hype is getting out of control. (Just today, Drudge linked to a lame article on how oxytocin can “cure” shyness. So can a six-pack.) It’s become the neurotransmitter-of-the-month, the occult chemical that can make you more moral, romantic and outgoing. By the way, it’s also a potential cure for autism. While there’s been some really interesting research on oxytocin – I’m particularly enamored of the ultimatum game stuff – I think we’re in danger of falling into what I’ll call the serotonin trap. Remember when serotonin was the secret of happiness, the little molecule that, when elevated by an SSRI, could cure depression and make even healthy individuals happier? Well, that neat story is so incomplete it’s wrong. I hope we don’t make the same over-enthusiastic mistake with oxytocin.


  1. #1 Mozglubov
    June 24, 2008

    As my girlfriend as pointed out to me, oxytocin is now also a favourite neurotransmitter of the ‘sexologists’ so often referenced in the pages of Cosmo…

  2. #2 Mozglubov
    June 24, 2008

    Damn it, as = has…

  3. #3 Gabe
    June 24, 2008

    Brilliant post today, read my mind.

  4. #4 TomK
    June 24, 2008

    Dude, man, you sound way too uptight. You should take a little hit of this oxytocin and reconsider. Maybe that would mellow out your reasoning a bit. You just can’t feel the love vibes from the oxytocin researchers cause you’re deficient. Just one hit man, make you feel so good… you’ll see…

  5. #5 scicurious
    June 25, 2008

    I can’t wait to see what some people do when they get hold of this one. Back in the day, people thought autism was caused by refridgerator mothers, now we’re going to say all these behavioral problems are caused by genetic deficiences in SERT and oxytocin, and next thing you know, someone will use the slippery slope fallacy and say that those people shouldn’t have children.

    I work on SSRIs, and I still think that not all of the serotonin hypothesis is dead wrong, but it’s been a warning to everyone that we shouldn’t plunge headlong into drugs because we love the behavioral effects.

    That said, I love those oxytocin prairie vole studies…

  6. #6 Megan
    June 25, 2008

    Oxytocin is an FDA controlled substance!

    Ingesting oxytocin in a pure form is not only illegal but it would be useless.

    1. Oxytocin is destroyed by stomach acids.

    2. Oxytocin has a three minute half-life in our blood stream.

    The healthiest way to achieve optimal oxytocin levels is to urge the body and the mind to support its own oxytocin release.

    Building trusting relationships is a process and is not something that takes place within a few moments in time or is limited to happening within a certain time period. It is quite possible that you may not even know it is happening until you experience that first smile or other unique cue, and respond appropriately.

    Talking, touching, holding, singing, eye contact . . . in tandem wih sub-lingual homeopathic oxytocin invigorator can help support these behaviors.

    I have been using a sublingual Oxytocin Accelerator formulation for the past 8 weeks and it’s pretty aswsome. I spray it in my boyfriends mouth too. He is all over me. Here is a link to read more if your interested.


  7. #7 Knowledge
    April 30, 2009

    Maybe both oxytocin and serotonin (and other neurotransmitters as well) are the ‘sectrets’ to happiness. I don’t think oxytocin is overhyped at all. Compassion makes us happy.

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