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Social Studies: Oxytocin as a Target in Psychiatric Drug Development

Social Studies
Reported by
Kathleen McGowan

Posted May 15, 2008


In mammals, oxytocin hormone has been long recognized for its role in birth and lactation. During the peripartum period, the number of oxytocin receptors in the uterus skyrockets. Oxytocin facilitates contractions and delivery, and controls the let-down lactation reflex.

But as with so many hormones, oxytocin's functions turn out to be diverse, complex, and far-reaching. This system not only regulates maternal behavior and sexual activity, but also has analgesic effects and promotes bonding among animals that form pair bonds. Oxytocin has anxiolytic, stress-attenuating, and perhaps even antidepressant activity, making it an interesting potential target for therapeutics. At a March 25, 2008, meeting at the Academy, four scientists discussed their research on oxytocin.

Web Sites

NIMH – Autism
The National Institute of Mental Health has a detailed publication on the symptoms, associated conditions, diagnosis and treatment of the many related autism spectrum disorders. The site also summarizes research into the causes of autism and provides references.

NARSAD (previously, the National Alliance on Schizophrenia and Depression) presents general information about mental health and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. For researchers, it includes summaries of all the research projects conducted by its grantees, as well as information about applying for grants.

The Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence
This Web site describes research projects and clinical programs at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.


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Carter CS, Lederhendler II, Kirkpatrick B, eds. 1999. The Integrative Neurobiology of Affiliation. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hollander E, Anagnostou E, eds. 2007. Clinical Manual for the Treatment of Autism. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc., Arlington, VA.

McEwen B, Lasley E. 2002. The End of Stress As We Know It. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C.

Numan M, Insel TR. 2003. The Neurobiology of Parental Behavior. Springer-Verlag, New York.

Poulain D, Oliet SHR, Theodosis D. 2002. Vasopressin and Oxytocin: From Genes to Clinical Applications. Elsevier, Amsterdam; Boston.


Love and Anxiety in the Lab: Basic Research

Bales KL, van Westerhuyzen JA, Lewis-Reese AD, et al. 2007. Oxytocin has dose-dependent developmental effects on pair bonding and alloparental care in female prairie voles. Horm. Behav. 52: 274-279.

Blume A, Bosch OJ, Miklos S, et al. 2008. Oxytocin reduces anxiety via ERK1/2 activation: local effect within the rat hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus. Eur. J. Neurosci. 27: 1947-1956.

Bosch OJ, Meddle SL, Beiderbeck DI, et al. 2005. Brain oxytocin correlates with maternal aggression: link to anxiety. J. Neurosci. 25: 6807-68015. Full Text

Bosch OJ, Sartori SB, Singewald N, Neumann ID. 2007. Extracellular amino acid levels in the paraventricular nucleus and the central amygdala in high- and low-anxiety dams rats during maternal aggression: regulation by oxytocin. Stress 10: 261-270.

Bosch OJ, Waldherr M., Nair H.P. et al. 2006. Viral vector-mediated overexpression of oxytocin receptors in the amygdala of virgin rats increases aggression and reduces anxiety. Front. Neuroendocrinol. 27: 1, 124-125.

Caldwell HK, Lee HJ, Macbeth AH, Young WS 3rd. 2008. Vasopressin: behavioral roles of an "original" neuropeptide. Prog. Neurobiol. 84: 1-24.

Carter CS. 2003. Developmental consequences of oxytocin. Physiol. and Behav. 79: 383-397.

Carter CS. 1998. Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology 23: 779-818.

Goldman M, Marlow-O'Connor M, Torres I, Carter CS. 2007. Diminished plasma oxytocin in schizophrenic patients with neuroendocrine dysfunction and emotional deficits. Schizophr. Res. 98: 247-255. Full Text

Grippo AJ, Gerena D, Huang J, et al. 2007. Social isolation induces behavioral and neuroendocrine disturbances relevant to depression in female and male prairie voles. Psychoneuroendocrinology 32: 966-980.

Grippo AJ, Lamb DG, Carter CS, Porges SW. 2007. Social isolation disrupts autonomic regulation of the heart and influences negative affective behaviors. Biol. Psych. 62: 1162-1170.

Neumann ID. 2007. Stimuli and consequences of dendritic release of oxytocin within the brain. Biochem. Soc. Trans. 35: 1252-1257. Full Text

Ruscio MG, Sweeny TD, Hazelton JL, et al. 2008. Pup exposure elicits hippocampal cell proliferation in the prairie vole. Behav. Brain Res. 187: 9-16.

Oxytocin in the Clinic: Autism and Anxiety

Autism Genome Project Consortium, Szatmari P, Paterson AD, et al. 2007. Mapping autism risk loci using genetic linkage and chromosomal rearrangements. Nat. Genet. 39: 319-328.

Bartz JA, Hollander E. 2006. The neuroscience of affiliation: forging links between basic and clinical research on neuropeptides and social behavior. Horm. Behav. 50: 518-528.

Carter CS. 2007. Sex differences in oxytocin and vasopressin: implications for autism spectrum disorders? Behav. Brain Res. 176: 170-186.

Haznedar MM, Buchsbaum MS, Hazlett EA, et al. 2006. Volumetric analysis and three-dimensional glucose metabolic mapping of the striatum and thalamus in patients with autism spectrum disorders. Am. J. Psychiatry 163: 1252-1263. Full Text

Hollander E, Anagnostou E, Chaplin W, et al. 2005. Striatal volume on magnetic resonance imaging and repetitive behaviors in autism. Biol. Psychiatry 58: 226-232.

Hollander E, Bartz J, Chaplin W, et al. 2007. Oxytocin increases retention of social cognition in autism. Biol. Psychiatry 61: 498-503.

Hollander E, Novotny S, Hanratty M, et al. 2003. Oxytocin infusion reduces repetitive behaviors in adults with autistic and Asperger's disorders. Neuropsychopharmacology 28: 193-198. Full Text

Ring RH. 2005. The central vasopressinergic system: examining the opportunities for psychiatric drug development. Curr. Pharm. Des. 11: 205-225.

Ring RH, Malberg JE, Potestio L, et al. 2006. Anxiolytic-like activity of oxytocin in male mice: behavioral and autonomic evidence, therapeutic implications. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 185: 218-225.


Oliver J. Bosch, PhD

University of Regensburg
e-mail | publications

Oliver Bosch is a research associate for behavioral neurobiology in Inga Neumann's group at the University of Regensburg, Germany. His main research interest is the underlying neurobiology of maternal behavior, including maternal aggression and stress coping with respect to inborn emotionality. He focuses on the role of oxytocin as well as other brain neuropeptides using techniques such as measuring in vivo release in certain brain areas using microdialysis as well as acute and chronic manipulations of these neuropeptide systems via retrodialysis, osmotic minipumps, and viral vector-mediated gene transfer.

Bosch graduated from the University of Regensburg with a PhD in zoology. Currently, he is collaborating with scientists from the Emory University, Atlanta; the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, Edinburgh; Okayama Graduate School of Medicine, Okayama; and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, Munich.

C. Sue Carter, PhD

University of Illinois at Chicago
e-mail | web site | publications

Sue Carter is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she is codirector of the Brain Body Center. Her research focuses on the neurobiology of social monogamy in prairie voles, with emphasis on the functions of oxytocin and vasopressin. She also has been involved in studies of human behavior, including research demonstrating the physiological benefits of lactation to the mother, and recent studies of oxytocin in various forms of mental illness.

Eric Hollander, MD

Mount Sinai School of Medicine
e-mail | web site | publications

Eric Hollander is the Esther and Joseph Klingenstein professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and director of the Seaver and Greater New York Autism Center of Excellence, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Hollander's research interests include the biological causes and effective treatment of autism and related pervasive developmental disorders, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, pathological gambling, and borderline personality disorder.

Hollander received his MD from SUNY Downstate Medical College, Brooklyn. He completed his internship in Internal Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital, residency and chief resident in psychiatry at Mt Sinai School of Medicine, and his NIMH research fellowship at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Robert H. Ring, PhD

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals

Robert Ring is head of Molecular Neurobiology for the Discovery Neurosciences Division of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Research in Princeton, NJ. His work is focused on investigating the role of central neuropeptidergic systems in psychiatric pathophysiology and is leading efforts at Wyeth to develop novel therapeutics for major depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. Ring also holds an appointment as adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, NY. He received undergraduate degrees in both biology and fine art at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and worked several years as a gallery artist before returning to science. He earned his PhD in molecular neurobiology at the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Southern California.

Kathleen McGowan

Kathleen McGowan is a freelance magazine writer specializing in science and medicine.