Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Cuddle me oxytocin

Without wishing to sound like I have had one beer to many, if this blog was an ice-cream I would generally liken it to a neapolitan. The reason being that I'd like to think that rather than just being 'plain' and providing only one flavour of interest, I try and make it more of a 'selection' ice-cream (bearing in mind that the chocolate portion always seems to go first). In my quest to provide the 'near-perfect neapolitan', I offer up this post on the hormone oxytocin.

Oxytocin (OT) has, whether fortunately or unfortunately, picked up the label of being the 'cuddle hormone' in certain circles given its connection to pair-bonding between mother and baby during that most sensitive of times, early infancy (very early infancy) and its empathetic undertones. It is quite a small peptide synthesised in the hypothalamus. Outside of uterine contraction and involvement with lactation, OT has found some interest in relation to quite a few different things. The more 'saucy' areas of OT are still the subject of some debate and given that this is 'not that type of blog' I will perhaps put such research to one side.

The attachment side of OT has meant that it has been looked at in relation to autism spectrum and related conditions given the focus (rightly or wrongly) on social interactive behaviours. Outside of the interest in possible genetic issues with oxytocin chemistry in autism, quite a lot of discussion has centred on the potential therapeutic properties of oxytocin administration for autism in light of lower plasma levels of OT being reported in some cases. The research is quite interesting: this study (randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled) suggested the OT administration reduced repetitive behaviours. This study suggested that emotion recognition was improved following intranasal administration of OT. I like this study in particular, given its quite ingenious method of drug delivery - a nasal spray - a method which could no doubt be applied to lots of other pharmacotherapies used as part of symptom management, particularly those with a need to bypass the gastrointestinal route. OT is also showing some promising results for conditions such as schizophrenia.

There is perhaps another side to OT which also deserves some attention. A quite speculative article published in Medical Hypotheses theorised at a possible relationship between pitocin (OT) induction and autism. So far however the evidence for such an assertion is weak although there is some suggestion of similar correlations related to ADHD (an important co-morbidity to autism). It does look like oxytocin might have some role to play in some components of autism (in some cases). A quick search of ClinicalTrials.gov suggests that there is quite a lot of research on-going on autism and OT. The question is whether OT is the chocolate part of our neapolitan ice-cream or just the strawberry or vanilla sections? We wait to see.