What do winning awards, eating fine foods, and beating others at games or competitions all have in common? They all influence the award pathways within the brain. Whenever an individual completes a task seen as positive, a short rush of a neurotransmitter called “dopamine” permeates the brain. It’s what gives winning the feel-good sensation.
A less obvious award pathway has been determined by scientists in recent years. Effectively, forming relationships also appears to stimulate similar dopamine releases throughout the brain. Motherhood, falling in love, and making friends may be stimulating in ways similar to non-social functioning. And it’s all facilitated through oxytocin, the love hormone.
There have been a number of studies throughout the years on oxytocin and its effects on building relationships. In the late 1990s, researchers observed the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on prairie voles. Prairie voles are mammals that exhibit exceedingly high rates of monogamy; they mate for life in a sense.
Throughout the study, scientists injected the voles with oxytocin in varying amounts at various intervals. After administering the oxytocin, scientists recorded visible changes in behavior and later observed potential molecular mechanisms. By the end of the study, they found that oxytocin prompted bonding between voles, and found evidence of neural pathways responsible for such changes.
Another study observed the effects on rats with anxiety, with results possibly extending towards humans with generalized or social anxiety disorders. Scientists conditioned the rat test subjects to be predisposed towards anxious traits. After the rats had been given anxiety disorders, the scientists electrically shocked them for differing durations at different doses of oxytocin.
Following the administration of oxytocin, the rats appeared to have blunted startle responses and lower levels of anxiety, suggesting that oxytocin may be able to treat fear responses in humans. Test subjects that were given oxytocin did not react as adversely to the shock cues. This was especially true in rats with low fear response thresholds, or pre-existing anxiety disorders.
Retrospective analyses have also been conducted on oxytocin, most notably in regards to mental health. One study observed rates of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, as compared to the levels of oxytocin within participants. Another study observed the role of oxytocin in social attachment disorders.
The generalized mental health analysis found correlations between positive mental health states, and higher levels of oxytocin. It would appear that individuals with greater amounts of oxytocin exhibited fewer occurrences of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Oxytocin was also correlated to play a role in social attachment disorder, though it did not appear to directly cause it. Instead, it was linked to the modulation of relationships.
All of the evidence seems to point towards oxytocin medication being beneficial in many ways, whether it be through enhancing sociability, treating mental illness, or taming social anxiety. These studies across animals and humans indicate that oxytocin interactions may be important in fostering relationships. Through the action and supplementation of oxytocin, individuals may be able to feel the related benefits.