By Maureen Salamon
Our brains are hard-wired to become distressed when we’re suddenly pulled from those we depend on physically or psychologically. So it’s not necessarily surprising, then, that oxytocin’s calming effects lend credence to its reputation as a hormone of relational repair.
Researchers have found that oxytocin not only promotes attachment among animals and humans, but solidifies those relationships and forms lasting social bonds.
A November 2005 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared urine levels of oxytocin and a related hormone called vasopressin in biological and adoptive children who lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages. After having contact with their mothers, oxytocin levels rose in biological children but remained static in adoptive children in the same circumstances, according to the study.
The research suggested psychological reasons why some adoptive children have difficulty forming secure relationships.
“Fascination with the developmental effects of social deprivation are not new – consider Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome who were purportedly nursed by a she-wolf,” wrote C. Sue Carter, professor of psychiatry and co-director of The Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a commentary of the 2005 study.
“The current finding is particularly compelling, because the previously orphaned children had lived in good homes for an average of nearly three years and were tested under apparently comparable conditions,” added Carter, one of the nation’s first researchers to study oxytocin.
With prior studies having established that oxytocin enhances humans’ social approach abilities, researchers in a 2009 article in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology decided to test the idea that the hormone might also promote secure relationships as well.
Within a three-week span, they invited 26 healthy men previously classified as having insecure attachment patterns to two experimental sessions, administering either inhaled oxytocin or a placebo. Participants viewed 32 pictures depicting attachment-related events such as illness, solitude, separation and loss, which were each accompanied by four phrases – one representing secure and three representing insecure attachment categories.
Of those who had inhaled oxytocin, 69 percent increased in their rankings of secure attachment phrases, researchers said, and a significant difference was observed between the placebo and oxytocin groups in ranking pictures with insecure phrases.
“We find that a single dose of intranasally administered oxytocin is sufficient to induce a significant increase in the experience of attachment security in insecurely attached adults,” wrote study author Anna Buchheim of the University of Innsbruck in Austria.