Some have called oxytocin, the “cuddling hormone” produced during childbirth, nursing and sex that is believed to promote long-term attachment, a “love drug.”
A few have even wondered if someday drug companies might come up with an oxytocin treatment that could control the heretofore-mysterious process of falling and staying in love.
But new research testing how oxytocin affects the way men remember their attachments to their mothers shows, once again, that the story of oxytocin (not to mention the oft-tangled and oft-lamented bonds between mothers and sons) isn’t so simple.
To conduct the study, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, researchers questioned 31 men about their adult attachments and about their current mood, dosed the men with an oxytocin nosespray or a placebo, and then questioned them further about their parental bonds and updated current mood.
(The researchers did not study women because taking oxytocin could be risky if a subject was pregnant.)
Despite oxytocin’s reputation for fostering warm fuzzies, men who received the hormone spray weren’t automatically flooded with positive memories of good times with Mom. Rather, oxytocin seemed to intensify pre-existing feelings. Men who initially reported positive memories of maternal care and closeness remembered those feelings more vividly under the influence of oxytocin, while men who were more “anxiously attached” to their mothers -- those who didn’t remember a caring and close relationship -- remembered feeling even more alienated than they initially indicated.
It is believed that oxytocin release is triggered by social contact, the researchers wrote, and that the hormone works by encoding social memories that are linked to the “hedonic value of the social stimulus” -- how happy, warm and safe (or not) the contact made them feel. Hence, “anxiously attached” men conjured stressful memories; more secure men conjured blissful ones.
The results raised some questions, the team reported. It’s possible that oxytocin improves the accuracy of memories about maternal bonds. Or it may be that the hormone “triggers a motivated recall,” leading the subject in a “biased search for information” that matches his beliefs and expectations about his attachment to his mother.
But one conclusion seems clear -- for now, hopes of an oxytocin-based love drug remain science fiction.
“These data suggest caution when hypothesizing about the effects of oxytocin for different individuals or as an intervention,” the researchers wrote. “Oxytocin is popularly dubbed the ‘hormone of love,’ but these data suggest that oxytocin is not an all-purpose attachment panacea.”