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The moral molecule

The hormone oxytocin is regarded as an elixir for love and happiness. But a dark side is emerging
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First Published: Thu, Jan 24 2013. 08 35 PM IST
If adrenaline is the body’s system of dealing with a fight-or-flight situation, oxytocin is its system of calm and connection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
If adrenaline is the body’s system of dealing with a fight-or-flight situation, oxytocin is its system of calm and connection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Charles Lindbergh, the man who made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, said adrenaline made him feel like he could fly without a plane. Alfred Hitchcock, the great director, said four things got his adrenaline going: small children, policemen, high places and the fear of failure.
It’s been about a century since the human body’s stress hormone, adrenaline, entered popular conversation. You and I can use the word adrenaline in a sentence. But try doing that with adrenaline’s mirror image, a hormone called oxytocin. How about, “You really get my oxytocin going.”
I think not.
If you were to term the 20th century the age of adrenaline, you could, perhaps, call the 21st century the era of oxytocin. If adrenaline is the body’s system of dealing with a fight-or-flight situation, oxytocin is its system of calm and connection.
“This calm and connection system is associated with trust and curiosity instead of fear, and with friendliness instead of anger,” writes Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in her book The Oxytocin Factor. Instead of tapping the “power drink”, adrenaline, the body releases a “ready-made healing nectar”, oxytocin, says Moberg. In March, she will release another book that explores the role of oxytocin in relationships.
First discovered in 1909, oxytocin, a chemical produced by the brain, was believed to be involved mainly with childbirth. Its link with love and amiable feelings, its effect on body and mind was identified only in the 1990s. Research over the last decade really brought oxytocin (see Frontier Mail, 3 May 2012) to public notice. It is said to affect a variety of human feelings and bodily functions: from early puberty in girls to autism, addiction and schizophrenia—and much more. One writer, neuroeconomist Paul Zak, proposes in a 2012 book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, that oxytocin could be the single biological element that determines if people are good or evil.
For more than a century, writes Zak, we have been taught that human behaviour is fundamentally both rational and self-interested. Borrowing a research tool called the Trust Game from experimental economics, Zak explains that across the world participants are usually more trustworthy than established theories predict they will be. But real people, he argues, ignore rational self-interest. The answer: “A reproductive hormone with curious properties involving trust and reciprocal trustworthiness.” That’s a big responsibility for any hormone.
“Few substances produced by the human body have inspired as much hoopla as oxytocin,” writes neuroscientist Greg Miller in Science this month.
In popular parlance, oxytocin has been likened to a chemical elixir, variously called the moral molecule or the cuddle chemical.
It’s also been called the hype hormone.
“Although the breathless media coverage often goes too far, it reflects a genuine and infectious excitement among many scientists about the hormone’s role in social behaviour,” writes Miller. “...Oxytocin has more recently captivated neuroscientists and psychologists who have found that it can promote trust and cooperation and make people more attuned to social cues.”
The interest is remarkable, given there are almost no long-term studies on its effects as a drug. Oxytocin therapies for autism, mostly administered as nasal sprays, are already in the market, a result of pressure from parental groups.
Caution is a good idea. Oxytocin is revealing a dark side. Recent studies warn that used as medication, the hormone, sometimes, can cause negative feelings. For instance, a 2012 Harvard School of Public Health study, which investigated how oxytocin influenced male and female responses to social stress, found women given the hormone felt anger during stressful situations—it also found their mathematics performance increased during that time.
Other studies have found that administering oxytocin to people with certain personality disorders can, instead of making them more sociable, cause them to withdraw. It can also cause people to be nicer to those they know and not so nice to people they do not. Miller reports that oxytocin appears to be a “double-edged sword: promoting bonds with familiar individuals, but promoting unfriendly behaviour toward strangers”.
Human clinical trials are under way to probe oxytocin as medication.
These trials can be broadly grouped into three. One focuses on its role in social stimuli, moral decision making and motivation; another on the effect of oxytocin on schizophrenia, autism, dementia and other cognitive disorders; and the last aims to use it as a drug that can ease labour and childbirth. Other random studies include the effects of oxytocin on stress in marijuana users, for chronic daily headaches and for wound-healing.
As a broad-spectrum promise, oxytocin has created much excitement. Researchers now, rightly, appear to be getting down to the details—and the devils in them.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com
To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail
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First Published: Thu, Jan 24 2013. 08 35 PM IST