Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oxytocin Selectively Facilitates Recognition of Positive Sex and Relationship Words

All --

Follow the link (title and here) to a brief report on the effect of Oxytocin [OT] on sexually related stimuli.
OT is usually assessed in serum as a result of, e.g., social supportive interventions. It typically increases as one feels "close" to another, and serves to enhance social bonds. These guys are inducing OT exogenously - via a nasal spray (!?) - and showing increases in the cognitive "availability" of sexual and relationship concepts.

Besides its obvious commercial potential, this raises some interesting conceptual issues. Their outcome is reaction time in a word recognition task, so it is far from the sexual trenches. It is interesting nonetheless. The key is that their experimental paradigm may allow for examining changes in sexual decisions within-person.

Does a measurable increase in OT disrupt one's good intentions by shifting the threshold for perceiving an otherwise neutral (or even negative / "risky") stimulus as sexual and positive? Sort of a neurochemical beer goggles.

Or, less crudely, and using some of Eric's framework, does OT shift one's action identification in a sexual context from the concrete (hanging out, maybe having sex...) to the abstract (pair-bonding, establishing human closeness, closely "relating"). As Eric has argued, higher-order action identifications may be hazardous to your health: you may sacrifice (concrete) individual protective motives on the alter of some abstract notion of "really being close tonight".

Do we, in our preventive interventions, inculcate beliefs and intentions that are learned in a "low-OT" state that, in a state-dependent learning -like fashion, fail to control behavior when one's brain state shifts? Perhaps a signal-detection paradigm may provide a way to examine the effect of temporary changes in OT level on high versus low risk mens' shifting thresholds for recognizing risk.

Are there individual - or within-individual - differences in the precursors of OT that we could conceptualize, assess and modify?

How do neurotransmitters such as OT map onto avoidant or "escape" coping with health risks? To the use of alcohol or drugs in potentially risky contexts? Brian Mustanski has found that the search for positive affect may be more important to risk than seeking relief from negative affect.

Your thoughts, esteemed colleagues? Kyle, you are the new experimental guy - what do you think?



  1. The introduction of OT seemingly induces a reduction of perception of threat according to the Ring et al. (2006) article that was attached to the e-mail Christine sent out. Reducing the perception of threat biologically could lead to an increase in risk-taking behaviors in general. In combination with the findings that an increase OT causes sex and relationship related words to be viewed as having high positive valence (Unkelback et al., 2008), it would seem that those two factors support risky sexual behaviors. People in a high OT state could be be searching for feelings of positive affect such as "feeling close for tonight" with complete disregard for not only their physical, but emotional health.

    It would seem prudent to address the reduction of risky sex behaviors by studying levels of OT more. It would seem most preventions are geared at people when they are not experiencing high levels of OT, so they are not prepared to combat high risk behaviors when their levels of OT are at their peak.

  2. This is the e-mail Kyle is referring to that I sent out. I am not sure how to make my link to the Ring article work. Send me an e-mail and I can forward it on to you if you are interested.

    Here is the citation: Ring, R.H., Malberg, J.E., Potestio, L., Ping, J., Boikess, S., Luo, B., Schechter, L.E., Rizzo, S., Rahman, Z. & Rosenzweig-Lipson, S. (2006) Anxiolytic-like activity of oxytocin in male mice: behavioral and autonomic evidence, therapeutic implications. Psychopharmacology (Berl.), 185, 218-225.

    The E-mail: For my prelim I was thinking for a while that engaging in sexual behavior may also serve as biological regulator of anxiety. So I started to look into biological models about why this would happen. We know that when women who engage in positive physical contact with their partner have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower heart rates in response to stress (Ditzen et al 2007). To me, this suggests that positive physical contact may biologically facilitate a reduction in stress. In 2006, an article came out that in male mice oxytocin (the hormone that is released during orgasm, breastfeeding, and labor) produced an anxiolytic-like effect in both behavioral and autonomic markers of anxiety (Ring et al, 2006). This has yet to be replicated in humans, but we are starting to see that oxytocin may be important to sexually risky people. Oxytocin is also called the “love hormone” because it facilities bonding and trust. To me this suggests that those who are experiencing a high level of anxiety (potentially PTSD) may have trouble trusting or bonding with partners (those with a history of childhood sexual abuse) may engage in activities, such as sex, to release oxytocin to regulate their anxiety and lack of trust.