A new study has found “significant similarities” between the behavioral effects of oxytocin — known as the “love hormone” — and alcohol.
The research draws on existing studies into the two compounds and details the similarities between the effects of alcohol and oxytocin on our actions.
Researchers warn that the oft-used nickname of the love hormone hides the darker side of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. It has long been established as playing a significant role in childbirth and maternal bonding. More recently it has been identified as a brain chemical with a key role in determining our social interactions and our reactions to romantic partners, leading to its nickname, the researchers explain.
Oxytocin increases prosocial behaviors such as altruism, generosity, and empathy, the researchers said, adding it also makes us more willing to trust others. These effects come about by suppressing the action of prefrontal and limbic cortical circuits — essentially removing the brakes on social inhibitors such as fear, anxiety, and stress.
“We thought it was an area worth exploring, so we pooled existing research into the effects of both oxytocin and alcohol and were struck by the incredible similarities between the two compounds,” said Dr. Ian Mitchell of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham in England.
“They appear to target different receptors within the brain, but cause common actions on GABA transmission in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic structures,” he explained.
“These neural circuits control how we perceive stress or anxiety, especially in social situations such as interviews, or perhaps even plucking up the courage to ask somebody on a date. Taking compounds such as oxytocin and alcohol can make these situations seem less daunting.”
“The idea of ‘Dutch courage’ — having a drink to overcome nerves — is used to battle those immediate obstacles of fear and anxiety,” added Dr. Steven Gillespie. “Oxytocin appears to mirror these effects in the lab.”
When administered nasally, oxytocin appears to closely mirror the effects of alcohol.
However, the researchers warn against self-medicating with either the hormone or a drink to provide a little more confidence in difficult moments.
Along with the health concerns that accompany frequent alcohol consumption, there are less desirable socio-cognitive effects that both alcohol and oxytocin can facilitate, the researchers warn. People can become more aggressive, more boastful, envious of those they consider to be their competitors, and favor their in-group at the expense of others.
The two also can affect our sense of fear, which normally acts to protect us from getting into trouble, they noted.
A dose of either compound can also influence how we deal with others by enhancing our perception of trustworthiness, which would further increase the danger of taking unnecessary risks, the researchers warn.
“I don’t think we’ll see a time when oxytocin is used socially as an alternative to alcohol,” Gillespie said. “But it is a fascinating neurochemical and, away from matters of the heart, has a possible use in treatment of psychological and psychiatric conditions.
“Understanding exactly how it suppresses certain modes of action and alters our behavior could provide real benefits for a lot of people. Hopefully this research might shed some new light on it and open up avenues we hadn’t yet considered.”
The study was published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
Source: University of Birmingham