When a person hugs or affectionately touches another, the brain chemical oxytocin is released, helping to strengthen social bonds, among other actions.
This “hormone of love” might provide hope for those suffering with depression, according to researchers who are currently conducting a clinical trial.
“In humans, oxytocin is released when they hug or experience other pleasant physical touch, and it plays a part in the human sexual response cycle,” said Dr. Kai MacDonald, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Oxytocin seems to change the brain signals responsible for social recognition through facial expressions, says MacDonald, perhaps by changing the firing of the amygdala, the area of the brain that plays a major role in the processing of important emotional stimuli. Therefore, oxytocin in the brain may be a very strong mediator of human social behavior.
“That’s why oxytocin is sometimes called ‘the love hormone,’” said MacDonald. “It’s said that the eyes are the window to the soul… they certainly are the window to the emotional brain. We know that the eye-to-eye communication, which is affected by oxytocin, is critical to intimate emotional communication for all kind of emotions — love, fear, trust, anxiety.”
Previously, UC San Diego researchers discovered that oxytocin could help those with schizophrenia, and MacDonald and colleague David Feifel, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, are now enrolling participants to study its role in clinical depression.
“Studies of blood levels and genetic factors in depressed patients point to the possibility that this natural hormone might play a part in helping clinical depression,” said MacDonald.
“Previously, studies of healthy individuals have shown that intranasal doses of oxytocin reduce activation of brain circuits involved in fear, increase levels of eye contact, and increase both trust and generosity,” MacDonald said. “Interestingly, people given oxytocin don’t report feeling any different, but they act differently.”
Early clinical data also indicates oxytocin may help women with anxiety disorders.
“A hug or a touch that causes a release of this hormone might somehow change brain signals,” MacDonald said. “We want to see if we can harness this response to help patients who suffer from depression.”
Source: University of California