Oxytocin is a naturally occurring neuro-hormone, commonly referred to as the love hormone for its correlation with increasing pro-social behavior. Oxytocin works both within the brain as a neurotransmitter, and through the blood stream as a hormone. Oxytocin is known to promote social behaviors such as trust, empathy, and compassion. Preliminary studies also show that oxytocin levels can inhibit the stress response, and decrease levels of cortisol and ACTH.
Oxytocin administration holds great potential for treatment of social-anxiety disorders ranging from schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to social phobias. Nevertheless, the science community is quite fragmented regarding oxytocin’s efficacy as a drug.
A small study produced great optimism for the future of oxytocin. The study shows intranasal administration of oxytocin selectively increases brain activity during social perception of children with high-functioning ASD. The researchers suggest oxytocin can be used to improve social functioning of children with ASD.
Nevertheless, the exact relationship between oxytocin levels and anxiety disorders is not fully understood. A new study from Stanford suggests oxytocin levels are unrelated to ASD altogether. Furthermore, long-term effects of oxytocin doses are undocumented. Research suggests that long-term exposure to oxytocin results in de-sensitization to the drug, therefore resulting in negative effects on social behavior.
Still, I remain hopeful in the love hormone: the potential of oxytocin to develop into a drug for anxiety disorder lies with increasing the scientific understanding of oxytocin and behavior. The long-documented correlation between oxytocin and social behaviors provide strong evidence for its medical potential. Understanding the pathways oxytocin undergoes during social interaction may illuminate the relationship between oxytocin and social phobias. Oxytocin as a nasal spray does not target all areas of the brain; therefore, drug research can develop methods which target oxytocin’s specific pathways. Additionally, Researchers Young and Barrett suggest oxytocin can be used occasionally as a supplement to behavioral therapy.
Oxytocin remains in its early stages of drug development. Though it is too early to make conclusions regarding its efficacy as a drug, continued research regarding oxytocin and social behavior suggest oxytocin is a promising drug target.