'Love Hormone' Oxytocin Plays Essential Role in Brain Functioning

First Posted: Aug 04, 2013 10:12 PM EDT

A new study showcases the potential of the potent 'love hormone' drug oxytocin and it's role in brain functioning

In a study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center researchers, they were able to decipher just how oxytocin acts as a neurophormone in the brain. According to researchers, it has the potential to increase the strength of desired signals that stimulate arousal.

"Oxytocin has a remarkable effect on the passage of information through the brain," said Richard W. Tsien, DPhil, the Druckenmiller Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center, via a press release. "It not only quiets background activity, but also increases the accuracy of stimulated impulse firing. Our experiments show how the activity of brain circuits can be sharpened, and hint at how this re-tuning of brain circuits might go awry in conditions like autism."

For the study, researchers looked at 30-year old results from research in Geneva that had shown how oxytocin acted in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that involves memory and cognition. This showed that the hormone stimulated nerve cells that helped inhibit interneurons that, in turn, released a chemical known as GABA. This substance dampens the activity of the adjoining nerve cells and is often a struggle for children or adults struggling with autism-spectrum disorder (ASD.)

"From the previous findings, we predicted that oxytocin would dampen brain circuits in all ways, quieting both background noise and wanted signals," Dr. Tsien said, via the release. "Instead, we found that oxytocin increased the reliability of stimulated impulses - good for brain function, but quite unexpected."

Researchers are still perplexed regarding the mystery of how oxytocin drives many of the fast-spiking inhibitory cells to fire. However, this also increases signaling to pyramid neurons.

"The stronger signal and muffled background noise arise from the same fundamental action of oxytocin and give two benefits for the price of one," Dr. Fishell said, via the release. "It's too early to say how the lack of oxytocin signaling is involved in the wide diversity of autism-spectrum disorders, and the jury is still out about its possible therapeutic effects. But it is encouraging to find that a naturally occurring neurohormone can enhance brain circuits by dialing up wanted signals while quieting background noise."

More information regarding the study can be found in Nature

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