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Welcome to 2 minute neuroscience, where I explain neuroscience topics in 2 minutes or
less.
In this installment I will discuss oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone and a neuropeptide, which is a name for a peptide that can also
act as a neurotransmitter.
Oxytocin is primarily produced in the hypothalamus and transported through axons to the posterior
lobe of the pituitary gland.
From there it can be secreted into the bloodstream of the body.
Although there are a number of effects linked to this peripherally-acting oxytocin, the
best understood effects have to do with childbirth and breastfeeding.
Oxytocin is involved with increasing uterine contractions during labor and with the milk
let-down reflex, which causes milk to be released during breastfeeding.
There is also evidence, however, that some oxytocin-containing neurons project to other
areas of the central nervous system including the hippocampus, cerebral cortex, brainstem,
amygdala, and spinal cord.
The effects of this centrally-released oxytocin are not as clearly understood.
Some research suggests it is involved with trust, empathy, and social bonding.
These findings have caused some to call oxytocin the trust hormone, the love hormone, or even
the cuddle hormone.
Others have argued, however, that oxytocin’s effects on the brain are not so clear-cut.
Some researchers have found oxytocin to be associated with negative emotions and aggression,
and some of the research supporting oxytocin’s function as a love or trust hormone has been
criticized for methodological problems.
Other researchers have hypothesized that oxytocin might be involved in promoting responsiveness
to social cues in general, whether they be positive or negative.
Thus, at this point there is no consensus on the effects of oxytocin’s actions on
behavior.
It is likely, however, that its effects on behavior are far more complex than a simple
designation like the “love hormone” would suggest.