If there’s one hormone most people know by name, it’s oxytocin (not to be confused with the opioid oxycontin) — the so-called “love hormone” that we’re told creates maternal love, better relationships, and all that is warm and fuzzy and good. Scientists have created an artificial version that lasts longer and is less likely to have negative health effects, but these fixes might not be the solution to the chemical’s biggest problems.
Oxytocin is released during lactation and orgasms, and one widely cited (though later challenged) study suggested that whiff of the chemical can increase trust in a money-sharing game. It follows, then, that researchers think the hormone shows promise as treatment for social anxiety, autism, and borderline personality disorder. Because oxytocin is known for having negative cardiovascular effects like increased heart rate and blood pressure, researchers created a synthetic hormone that re-created its positive results but didn’t seem to affect the heart. (The results were published today in the journal Science Signaling.) Still, before we rush to administer this synthetic hormone, it’s important to remember all the other side effects the chemical can cause.
The scientists in today’s study engineered a tweaked version of oxytocin that’s more stable than the real thing, meaning it lasts longer, and tested it several ways. Synthetic oxytocin given to human uterine cells caused the cells to contract, just like the natural hormone is supposed to do. Rats treated with synthetic oxytocin after being taught to be afraid of a stimuli were less afraid than the untreated rats. And synthetic oxytocin didn’t have any effects on human heart cells, though the natural hormone did, suggesting that in a working human heart, the synthetic stuff might not cause the same complications.
Creating an artificial version of the hormone can help us better understand the original hormone and how it works, though it’s still unclear what the synthetic stuff would do in actual humans. But the authors aren’t doing this just to help us understand oxytocin. They think their hormone has promise for treating social problems, and this application still plays into the hype around oxytocin. As science journalist Ed Yong writes, the hype can be dangerous.
There’s been skepticism over whether oxytocin really creates trust. A lot of the research promoting its benefits isn’t solid as breathless media reports would suggest; oxytocin probably can’t keep your spouse from cheating, for example. In one study, people who sniffed oxytocin became less cooperative in a game if they were playing with strangers. The chemical that facilitates the mother-child bond might also make us more bigoted against people who aren’t like us and has been linked to increased envy and gloating. No word on whether the synthetic version of the hormone can avoid these side effects.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do research on oxytocin, or that its positive effects are all false. It could well be that the benefits of any potential treatment would outweigh the downsides in certain cases. But before we get there, we need more rigorous research on how oxytocin works overall, not just any optimistic evaluation of the upsides.