Oxytocin, often referred to as "love hormone", can help enhance social function in psychiatric disorders, and may be a viable therapeutic option for disorders like autism and schizophrenia. Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, suggest that inducing the release of brain oxytocin can have a potential in psychiatric treatment of these disorders.
The oxytocin system is well-known for creating a bond between a mother and her newborn baby, and oxytocin is a lead drug candidate for treating social deficits in autism. Getting synthetic oxytocin into the brain, however, is challenging because of a blood-brain barrier.
In this new study, lead researchers Meera Modi and Larry Young demonstrated for the first time the potential of oxytocin-releasing drugs to activate the social brain, to create bonds and, they believe, to possibly treat social deficits in psychiatric disorders.
The researchers used pair bonding in monogamous prairie voles as an index of prosocial effects. Normally mating in the voles is necessary for the release of brain oxytocin that leads to a monogamous bond. For the first time, however, the Yerkes researchers showed that a drug that activates melanocortin receptors stimulates release of oxytocin in the brain to affect social relationships.
According to Young, a simple injection of the melanocortin drug quickly induced a pair bond in male and female prairie voles without mating, and that bond lasted long after the drug wore away. The researchers also showed the same drug activated oxytocin cells so the cells released oxytocin directly into the brain's reward centers responsible for generating bonds.
Young believes that the latest discovery opens a new avenue of research to harness the power of the brain's oxytocin system to enhance the ability to process social information that could profoundly affect treatment of social disorders, particularly when combined with behavioral therapies used to treat children on the autism spectrum.
Young added that imagine a drug that could induce the social attention and motivation a mother feels when nursing her infant or the bond between new lovers. This is exactly what they have shown in the latest oxytocin-related research and the chemical's viability to be a therapeutic target for enhancing social function in psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.
The study is published online in Neuropsychopharmacology.