C. Sue Carter , William M. Kenkel , Evan L. MacLean , Steven R. Wilson , Allison M. Perkeybile , Jason R. Yee , Craig F. Ferris , Hossein P. Nazarloo , Stephen W. Porges , John M. Davis , Jessica J. Connelly , Marcy A. Kingsbury
Oxytocin is a pleiotropic, peptide hormone with broad implications for general health, adaptation, development, reproduction, and social behavior. Endogenous oxytocin and stimulation of the oxytocin receptor support patterns of growth, resilience, and healing. Oxytocin can function as a stress-coping molecule, an anti-inflammatory, and an antioxidant, with protective effects especially in the face of adversity or trauma. Oxytocin influences the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. These properties of oxytocin may help explain the benefits of positive social experiences and have drawn attention to this molecule as a possible therapeutic in a host of disorders. However, as detailed here, the unique chemical properties of oxytocin, including active disulfide bonds, and its capacity to shift chemical forms and bind to other molecules make this molecule difficult to work with and to measure. The effects of oxytocin also are context-dependent, sexually dimorphic, and altered by experience. In part, this is because many of the actions of oxytocin rely on its capacity to interact with the more ancient peptide molecule, vasopressin, and the vasopressin receptors. In addition, oxytocin receptor(s) are epigenetically tuned by experience, especially in early life. Stimulation of G-protein–coupled receptors triggers subcellular cascades allowing these neuropeptides to have multiple functions. The adaptive properties of oxytocin make this ancient molecule of special importance to human evolution as well as modern medicine and health; these same characteristics also present challenges to the use of oxytocin-like molecules as drugs that are only now being recognized.
Oxytocin is an ancient molecule with a major role in mammalian behavior and health. Although oxytocin has the capacity to act as a “natural medicine” protecting against stress and illness, the unique characteristics of the oxytocin molecule and its receptors and its relationship to a related hormone, vasopressin, have created challenges for its use as a therapeutic drug.