Can Oxytocin Fortify Resilience Against Childhood Adversity?

Oxytocin may provide a buffer against childhood adversity, abuse, or neglect.

Posted Jul 23, 2015

Source: KonstantinChristian/Shutterstock

A new study from Emory University reports that manipulating the oxytocin system has the potential to fortify a person's resilience against childhood adversity, abuse, or neglect. 

Oxytocin (OT) is also known as the "love hormone" because it's part of a system that underlies the neurobiological mechanisms linked to social bonding and attachments. Oxytocin is released during childbirth and lactation. It's also released in response to touch and intimate sexual encounters. Oxytocin is at the heart of pair bonding, the neurobiology of falling in love, and any close-knit human bonds.

There is growing evidence that the oxytocin system plays a key role in how early social interactions impact complex social behaviors throughout our lives. There may also be a link between the oxytocin system and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 

In a 2013 Psychology Today blog post, "Can Oxytocin Improve Brain Function in Children With Autism?" I write about a study from Yale School of Medicine which found that a single dose of the hormone oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, can enhance brain activity while processing social information in children with ASD.

Most recently, a July 2015 study, “The Oxytocin System Promotes Resilience to the Effects of Neonatal Isolation on Adult Social Attachment in Female Prairie Voles,” was published online in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Lead author, Catherine Barrett PhD, is from The Young Lab at Emory University School of Medicine's Psychiatry Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. Barrett studies the impact of early childhood adversity or disruptions in parental care in mediating long-term changes in adult social behavior by observing the behavior and neurobiology of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). 

Barrett is researching the role of oxytocin and oxytocin receptors (OTR) in fortifying resilience—or making someone more vulnerable—to early social disruptions. She's also inerested in the potential development of treatments and interventions that target the oxytocin system and could be used to buffer the impact of childhood adversity.

What Is the Link Between Prairie Voles and Oxytocin?

In the 1970s, scientists learned that in prairie voles, which mate for life, the nucleus accumbens is packed full of oxytocin receptors. Blocking oxytocin receptors disrupted the prairie voles' monogamous behavior. In species that are not biologically wired to be monogamous, such as mountain voles and common mice, the nucleus accumbens doesn’t have oxytocin receptors.

The male prairie vole is hardwired to have continuous contact with his female partner, which lasts throughout their lifespan. Even if his female prairie vole partner dies, the male does not seek a new partner and remains a widower until his death. 

For the new study, Barrett et al examined the interaction of early-life adversity and OTR density on adult social attachment in female prairie voles. According to the researchers, both human and animal offspring who have experienced disruptions in parental nurturing often display "increased fear responsiveness, hyperactive stress physiology, impaired social competence, and, in humans, an increased vulnerability for mood and anxiety, addiction, and personality disorders."

Early-life social experiences impact adult social attachment in prairie voles. Neurobiological responses to early experiences (i.e. nurturing or neglect) are primarily driven by the oxytocin system. In adult female prairie voles, oxytocin signaling facilitates pair bond formation when determing partner preferences. In humans, interventions that apply supplemental touch to preterm infants improve emotional self-regulation and social reciprocity throughout childhood development.

Parental nurturing in both humans and prairie voles alters their neurobiology and behavior. For humans, being held and touched in the first 28 days of life is critical for healthy brain development and oxytocin bonding. Previous studies have shown that parental engagement leads to increased oxytocin release in infants.

For prairie voles, licking and grooming is an equally important component of parental care and infinct. The findings of this study suggest that neonatal OTR signaling, in response to parental tactile stimulation, may positively influence the development of neural systems involved in adult social attachment and pair bonding.

The Oxytocin System Is Fortified by Nurturance

The oxytocin system is stimulated by loving touch and physical contact in both prairie voles and humans. Oxytocin is released centrally and peripherally after physical contanct and huddling in adult rats, and is increased in the saliva of human infants after being touched or held by parents or caregivers. 

Barret found that females with high amounts of oxytocin binding were more resilient to neonatal isolation and a lack of touch. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that parental nurturing shapes neural systems underlying social relationships by enhancing OTR signaling. 

In a follow up experiment, the researchers determind that early touch, mimicking parental licking and grooming, stimulated oxytocin activity. The researchers found that augmenting oxytocin signaling can reduce the negative effects of neonatal isolation. These results suggest that oxytocin may help bolster resilience and buffer negative psychiatric outcomes of early childhood adversity, neglect, and isolation. 

Conclusion: Oxytocin Treatments As a Prophylaxis for Childhood Adversity

Oxytocin research and treatments have important implications for possibly improving the resilience of children who have grown up with adversity or neglect. The oxytocin system also has implications for treating psychiatric disorders characterized by disruption in social cognition, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia

The new study from Emory University is the first to establish a relationship between individual variation in neuropeptide receptor expression in the brain and susceptibility or resilience to early-life social experiences of adversity or neglect.

Child abuse, parental neglect, and preterm infancy all involve disruptions in socioemotional development and well-being. The development of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions that target the oxytocin system could be revolutionary. 

More research is needed to understand the potential benefits, as well as detriments, of manipulating the oxytocin system at various stages of a person's lifespan. Hopefully, a better understanding of the oxytocin system will lead to treatments that improve the resiliency of any child who suffers from the consequences of growing up in poverty or with adversity and neglect.  

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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