The Many Faces of Oxytocin…Augments Bad Memories, Fear and Anxiety as well as Promotes Bonding and Trust
July 22, 2013 — The ‘love hormone’ oxytocin has been all the rage in scientific circles for several years due to it’s involvement in trust, single pair bonding, friendship and love. Yet, recent research seems to indicate that the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, can also strengthen negative memories and increase the intensity of anxiety and fear. This is an entirely new role being uncovered for the fan favorite neurotransmitter.
Negative social situations, such as being the target of bullying, getting yelled at by the boss or embarrassed by a teacher, seem to be reinforced and strengthened by oxytocin. And perhaps, oxytocin may be part of the trigger for dread – anticipatory worry – and anxiety. This comes at a time when oxytocin is being studied for use as an anti-anxiety agent.
The reason is that oxytocin seems to strengthen our social memories – positve AND negative – in one particular region of the brain, according to researchers at Northwestern University.
If a social experience is negative or stressful, oxytocin seems to activate an area of the brain that intensifies that memory. Further, it seems to increase the odds of feeling dread and anxiety in anticipation of future stressful events.
Ongoing research seems to indicate that oxytocin also augments positive social memories and, thus, intensifies feelings of well being as well.
The findings are critical as chronic stress is one of the primary causes of anxiety and depression, while positive social interactions lead to emotional health.
“By understanding the oxytocin system’s dual role in triggering or reducing anxiety, depending on the social context, we can optimize oxytocin treatments that improve well-being instead of triggering negative reactions,” stated Jelena Radulovic, the lead author of the study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The paper was published July 21 in Nature Neuroscience.
This is the first and only research to link oxytocin to social stress and its apparent role in increasing anxiety and dread in anticipation of future stress. Northwestern scientists also discovered the brain region responsible for these effects — the lateral septum — and the pathway or route oxytocin uses in this area to amplify fear and anxiety.
The scientists discovered that oxytocin strengthens negative social memory and future anxiety by triggering an important signaling molecule — ERK (extracellular signal regulated kinases) — that becomes activated for six hours after a negative social experience. ERK causes enhanced fear, Radulovic believes, by stimulating the brain’s fear pathways, many of which pass through the lateral septum. The region is involved in emotional and stress responses.
The findings surprised the researchers, who were expecting oxytocin to modulate positive emotions in memory, based on its long association with love and social bonding.
“Oxytocin is usually considered a stress-reducing agent based on decades of research,” said Yomayra Guzman, a doctoral student in Radulovic’s lab and the study’s lead author. “With this novel animal model, we showed how it enhances fear rather than reducing it and where the molecular changes are occurring in our central nervous system.’
The new research follows three recent human studies with oxytocin, all of which are beginning to offer a more complicated view of the hormone’s role in emotions.
All the new experiments were done in the lateral septum. This region has the highest oxytocin levels in the brain and has high levels of oxytocin receptors across all species from mice to humans.
“This is important because the variability of oxytocin receptors in different species is huge,” Radulovic said. “We wanted the research to be relevant for humans, too.”
Experiments with mice in the study established that
1) oxytocin is essential for strengthening the memory of negative social interactions and
2) oxytocin increases fear and anxiety in future stressful situations.
John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Positive Psychology Coach, Expert consultant for Pixar
Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought (for a free PDF copy, visit Guide to Self and click on the book icon on the left of the page)
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- Yomayra F Guzmán, Natalie C Tronson, Vladimir Jovasevic, Keisuke Sato, Anita L Guedea, Hiroaki Mizukami, Katsuhiko Nishimori, Jelena Radulovic. Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors. Nature Neuroscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nn.3465