‘Love hormone’ gives greater sense of spirituality than a placebo
Oxytocin has been dubbed the “love hormone” for its role promoting social bonding, altruism and more. Now new research from Duke University suggests the hormone may also support spirituality.
In the study, men reported a greater sense of spirituality shortly after taking oxytocin and a week later. Participants who took oxytocin also experienced more positive emotions during meditation, said lead author Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke.
“Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research,” Van Cappellen said. “We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences.
“Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”
Study participants were all male, and the findings apply only to men, said Van Cappellen, associate director of the Interdisciplinary and Behavioral Research Center at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. In general, oxytocin operates somewhat differently in men and women, Van Cappellen added. Oxytocin’s effects on women’s spirituality still needs to be investigated.
The results appears online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Oxytocin occurs naturally in the body. Produced by the hypothalamus, it acts as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the brain. It is stimulated during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. Recent research has highlighted oxytocin’s possible role in promoting empathy, trust, social bonding and altruism.
To test how oxytocin might influence spirituality, researchers administered the hormone to one group and a placebo to another. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose. This was true after taking into account whether the participant reported belonging to an organized religion or not.
Participants who received oxytocin were also more inclined to view themselves as interconnected with other people and living things, giving higher ratings to statements such as “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”
Study subjects also participated in a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during meditation, including awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love and serenity.
Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally, though. Its effect on spirituality was stronger among people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, a gene that regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.
Van Cappellen cautioned that the findings should not be over-generalized. First of all, there are many definitions of spirituality, she noted.
“Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”
Learn more: OXYTOCIN ENHANCES SPIRITUALITY, NEW STUDY SAYS
Researchers at UiO have tested a new device for delivering hormone treatments for mental illness through the nose. This method was found to deliver medicine to the brain with few side effects.
About one out of every hundred Norwegians develop schizophrenia or autism in the course of their lifetime. Moreover, at any one time some 20 000 people are receiving treatment for these problems. Many psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are characterised by poor social functioning.
Oxytocin is a hormone that influences social behaviour and has shown promise for the treatment of mental illness.
Researchers at UiO have now discovered that low doses of oxytocin may help patients with mental illness to better perceive social signals. As part of this project, they have collaborated with the company OptiNose, who have developed a new device designed to improve medicine delivery to the brain via the nose.
Regulates social behaviour
Oxytocin has historically been known to play a crucial role in child rearing as it facilitates pregnancy, birth, and the release of milk during nursing. Further, oxytocin helps regulate cardiac functions and fluid levels. More recent research has revealed the importance of oxytocin for social behaviour.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide and was discovered in 1953. Peptides are a group of molecules that consist of a chain of amino acids. Amino acids are also known as the building blocks of proteins, which we find in all types of cells. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, which is the brain’s coordinating centre for the hormone system.
Medicine through the nose
Because of oxytocin’s role in social behaviour, researchers have explored the possibility of administering the hormone for the treatment of mental illness. As oxytocin is a relatively large molecule, it has trouble crossing the barrier between the brain and circulating blood. Thus, researchers have administered oxytocin to patients through the nose as this route offers a direct pathway to the brain that bypasses this barrier.
However, researchers have a poor understanding of how oxytocin reaches and affects the brain. The most effective dose for treatment has also received little research attention.
Professor Ole A. Andreassen and his research team have collaborated with OptiNose on a project that evaluated two different doses of oxytocin and on how they affect the way in which social signals are perceived.
Low doses work best
Sixteen healthy men received two different doses of oxytocin, along with placebo. Volunteers were also given an intravenous dose of oxytocin, for a comparison of the effects of oxytocin in circulating blood. The research showed that only those administered a low dose of oxytocin experienced an effect on how they perceived social signals.
Professor Ole A. Andreassen explains:
“The results show that intranasal administration, i.e. introducing oxytocin through the nose, affects the function of the brain.
As no effect was observed after intravenous treatment, this indicates that intranasally administered oxytocin travels directly to the brain, as we have long believed.
The fact that we have shown the efficacy of a low dose of oxytocin on social perception is even more important.
A dose that is lower, but that still influences behaviour, will entail a lower risk of affecting other regulatory systems in the body. Very high doses of oxytocin could, in fact, have the opposite effect on social behaviour.”
The scientists also discovered that individuals with larger nasal cavities had a stronger response to a low dose of oxytocin.
OptiNose uses a new technology to distribute medicine to the brain, making use of the user’s breath to propel medicine deep into the nasal cavity.
Read more: Nasal spray device for mental illness