: /ˌɔk.sɪ.ˈtoʊ.sɪn/) (Greek, "quick birth") is a mammalian hormone
that also acts as a neurotransmitter
in the brain
It is best known for its roles in female reproduction: it is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including social recognition, bonding, anxiety, trust, and maternal behaviors.
Synthesis, storage and release
Oxytocin is made in magnocellular neurosecretory cells
of the supraoptic
nuclei of the hypothalamus
and is released into the blood from the posterior lobe
of the pituitary gland
. Oxytocin is also made by some neurons in the paraventricular nucleus that project to other parts of the brain and to the spinal cord. Depending on the species, oxytocin-expressing cells are located in other areas, including the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis.
In the pituitary gland, oxytocin is packaged in large, dense-core vesicles, where it is bound to neurophysin I as shown in the inset of the figure; neurophysin is a large peptide fragment of the larger precursor protein molecule from which oxytocin is derived by enzymatic cleavage.
Secretion of oxytocin from the neurosecretory nerve endings is regulated by the electrical activity of the oxytocin cells in the hypothalamus. These cells generate action potentials that propagate down axons to the nerve endings in the pituitary; the endings contain large numbers of oxytocin-containing vesicles, which are released by exocytosis when the nerve terminals are depolarised.
Oxytocin is also synthesized by corpora lutea of several species, including ruminants and primates. Along with estrogen, it is involved in inducing the endometrial synthesis of Prostaglandin-F2alpha to cause regression of the corpus luteum.
Structure and relation to vasopressin
Oxytocin is a peptide
of nine amino acids
(a nonapeptide). The sequence is cysteine
(CYIQNCPLG). The cysteine residues form a sulfur bridge
. Oxytocin has a molecular mass
of 1007 daltons
. One international unit
(IU) of oxytocin is the equivalent of about 2 micrograms
of pure peptide.
The structure of oxytocin is very similar to that of vasopressin (cysteine - tyrosine - phenylalanine - glutamine - asparagine - cysteine - proline - arginine - glycine), also a nonapeptide with a sulfur bridge, whose sequence differs from oxytocin by 2 amino acids. A table showing the sequences of members of the vasopressin/oxytocin superfamily and the species expressing them is present in the vasopressin article. Oxytocin and vasopressin were isolated and synthesized by Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953, work for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1955.
Oxytocin and vasopressin are the only known hormones released by the human posterior pituitary gland to act at a distance. However, oxytocin neurons make other peptides, including corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and dynorphin, for example, that act locally. The magnocellular neurons that make oxytocin are adjacent to magnocellular neurons that make vasopressin, and are similar in many respects.
Oxytocin has peripheral (hormonal) actions, and also has actions in the brain. The actions of oxytocin are mediated by specific, high affinity oxytocin receptors
. The oxytocin receptor is a G-protein-coupled receptor
which requires Mg2+
. It belongs to the rhodopsin
-type (class I) group of G-protein-coupled receptors.
Peripheral (hormonal) actions
The peripheral actions of oxytocin mainly reflect secretion from the pituitary gland. (See oxytocin receptor for more detail on its action.)
- Letdown reflex – in lactating (breastfeeding) mothers, oxytocin acts at the mammary glands, causing milk to be 'let down' into a collecting chamber, from where it can be extracted by compressing the areola and sucking at the nipple. Sucking by the infant at the nipple is relayed by spinal nerves to the hypothalamus. The stimulation causes neurons that make oxytocin to fire action potentials in intermittent bursts; these bursts result in the secretion of pulses of oxytocin from the neurosecretory nerve terminals of the pituitary gland.
- Uterine contraction – important for cervical dilation before birth and causes contractions during the second and third stages of labor. Oxytocin release during breastfeeding causes mild but often painful uterine contractions during the first few weeks of lactation. This also serves to assist the uterus in clotting the placental attachment point postpartum. However, in knockout mice lacking the oxytocin receptor, reproductive behavior and parturition is normal.
- The relationship between oxytocin and human sexual response is unclear. At least two non-controlled studies have found increases in plasma oxytocin at orgasm – in both men and women. The authors of one of these studies speculated that oxytocin's effects on muscle contractibility may facilitate sperm and egg transport. Murphy et al. (1987), studying men, found that oxytocin levels were raised throughout sexual arousal and there was no acute increase at orgasm. A more recent study of men found an increase in plasma oxytocin immediately after orgasm, but only in a portion of their sample that did not reach statistical significance. The authors noted that these changes "may simply reflect contractile properties on reproductive tissue.
- Due to its similarity to vasopressin, it can reduce the excretion of urine slightly. More importantly, in several species, oxytocin can stimulate sodium excretion from the kidneys (natriuresis), and in humans, high doses of oxytocin can result in hyponatremia.
- Oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are also found in the heart in some rodents, and the hormone may play a role in the embryonal development of the heart by promoting cardiomyocyte differentiation. However, the absence of either oxytocin or its receptor in knockout mice has not been reported to produce cardiac insufficiencies.
- Modulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Oxytocin, under certain circumstances, indirectly inhibits release of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol and, in those situations, may be considered an antagonist of vasopressin.
Actions of oxytocin within the brain
Oxytocin secreted from the pituitary gland
cannot re-enter the brain because of the blood-brain barrier
. Instead, the behavioral effects of oxytocin are thought to reflect release from centrally projecting oxytocin neurons, different from those that project to the pituitary gland. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in many parts of the brain and spinal cord, including the amygdala
, ventromedial hypothalamus
- Sexual arousal. Oxytocin injected into the cerebrospinal fluid causes spontaneous erections in rats, reflecting actions in the hypothalamus and spinal cord.
- Bonding. In the Prairie Vole, oxytocin released into the brain of the female during sexual activity is important for forming a monogamous pair bond with her sexual partner. Vasopressin appears to have a similar effect in males. Oxytocin has a role in social behaviors in many species, and so it seems likely that it has similar roles in humans.
- Autism. Oxytocin may play a role in autism and may be an effective treatment for autism's repetitive and affiliative behaviors. Two related studies in adults, in 2003 and 2007, found that oxytocin decreased repetitive behaviors and improved interpretation of emotions, but these preliminary results do not necessarily apply to children.
- Maternal behavior. Rat females given oxytocin antagonists after giving birth do not exhibit typical maternal behavior. By contrast, virgin female sheep show maternal behavior towards foreign lambs upon cerebrospinal fluid infusion of oxytocin, which they would not do otherwise.
- Increasing trust and reducing fear. In a risky investment game, experimental subjects given nasally administered oxytocin displayed "the highest level of trust" twice as often as the control group. Subjects who were told that they were interacting with a computer showed no such reaction, leading to the conclusion that oxytocin was not merely affecting risk-aversion. Nasally administered oxytocin has also been reported to reduce fear, possibly by inhibiting the amygdala (which is thought to be responsible for fear responses). There is no conclusive evidence for access of oxytocin to the brain through intranasal administration, however.
- Affecting generosity by increasing empathy during perspective taking. In a neuroeconomics experiment, intranasal oxytocin increased generosity in the Ultimatum Game by 80% but has no effect in the Dictator Game that measures altruism. Perspective-taking is not required in the Dictator Game, but the researchers in this experiment explicitly induced perspective-taking in the Ultimatum Game by not identifying to participants which role they would be in.
- According to some studies in animals, oxytocin inhibits the development of tolerance to various addictive drugs (opiates, cocaine, alcohol) and reduces withdrawal symptoms.
- Preparing fetal neurons for delivery. Crossing the placenta, maternal oxytocin reaches the fetal brain and induces a switch in the action of neurotransmitter GABA from excitatory to inhibitory on fetal cortical neurons. This silences the fetal brain for the period of delivery and reduces its vulnerability to hypoxic damage.
- Certain learning and memory functions are impaired by centrally administered oxytocin.. Also, systemic oxytocin administration can impair memory retrieval in certain aversive memory tasks.
- MDMA (ecstasy) may increase feelings of love, empathy and connection to others by stimulating oxytocin activity via activation of serotonin 5-HT1A receptors, if initial studies in animals apply to humans.
Synthetic oxytocin is sold as medication under the trade names Pitocin and Syntocinon and also as generic oxytocin. Oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, and therefore must be administered by injection or as nasal spray. Oxytocin has a half-life of typically about three minutes in the blood. Oxytocin given intravenously does not enter the brain in significant quantities - it is excluded from the brain by the blood-brain barrier. There is no evidence for significant CNS entry of oxytocin by nasal spray. Oxytocin nasal sprays have been used to stimulate breastfeeding but the efficacy of this approach is doubtful.
Injected oxytocin analogues are used to induce labor and support labor in case of non-progression of parturition. It has largely replaced ergotamine as the principal agent to increase uterine tone in acute postpartum haemorrhage. Oxytocin is also used in veterinary medicine to facilitate birth and to increase milk production. The tocolytic agent atosiban (Tractocile) acts as an antagonist of oxytocin receptors; this drug is registered in many countries to suppress premature labour between 24 and 33 weeks of gestation. It has fewer side-effects than drugs previously used for this purpose (ritodrine, salbutamol and terbutaline).
Some have suggested that the trust-inducing property of oxytocin might help those who suffer from social anxieties and mood disorders, while others have noted the potential for abuse with confidence tricks.
Potential adverse reactions
Oxytocin is relatively safe when used at recommended doses. Potential side effects include:
Virtually all vertebrates
have an oxytocin-like nonapeptide
hormone that supports reproductive functions and a vasopressin-like nonapeptide hormone involved in water regulation. The two genes are always located close to each other (less than 15,000 bases apart) on the same chromosome
and are transcribed in opposite directions. It is thought that the two genes resulted from a gene duplication
event; the ancestral gene is estimated to be about 500 million years old and is found in cyclostomes
(modern members of the Agnatha
- New Scientist -'Cuddle chemical' could treat mental illness (14 May 2008)
- Caldwell, H.K. and Young, W.S., III. Oxytocin and Vasopressin: Genetics and Behavioral Implications in Lim, R. (ed.) Handbook of Neurochemistry and Molecular Neurobiology, 3rd edition, Springer, New York, pp. 573-607, 2006. 320kb PDF
- NewScientist.com - 'Release of Oxytocin due to penetrative sex reduces stress and neurotic tendencies', New Scientist (January 26, 2006)
- Oxytocin.org - 'I get a kick out of you: Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people', The Economist (February 12, 2004)
- SMH.com.au - 'To sniff at danger: Inhalable oxytocin could become a cure for social fears', Boston Globe (January 12, 2006)
- Hug the Monkey - A weblog devoted entirely to oxytocin
- PsychCentral.com - Biochemical effects of betrayal (May 23, 2008)
- A Neurophysiologic Model of the Circuitry of Oxytocin in Arousal, Female Distress and Depression - Rainer K. Liedtke, MD