Dr. Thierry Hertoghe is a Belgium based physician and is a key researcher of hormone use in humans. Curiously, oxytocin is often thought that it only affects women during child birth. This is not true, it is also found in the in men In men, as in women, oxytocin facilitates bonding and is considered the “love drug”. Dads who got a boost of oxytocin via a nasal spray played more closely with their 5-month-old babies than dads who didn’t get the hormone zap, a 2012 study found. (There is another hormone, called vasopressin, which plays a stronger role in men.)
Another study found that men in relationships given a burst of oxytocin spray stood farther away from an attractive woman than men who weren’t given any oxytocin.
This anti-social effect of a social hormone brings some nuance to the story of oxytocin. In one study, researchers found that Dutch students given a snort of the hormone became more positive about fictional Dutch characters, but were more negative about characters with Arab or German names. The finding suggests that oxytocin’s social bonding effects are targeted at whomever a person perceives as part of their in-group, the researchers reported in January 2011 in the journal PNAS.
In another study, published in PNAS in 2010, men were given a dose of oxytocin and asked to write about their mothers. Those with secure relationships described their moms as more caring after the hormone dose. Those with troubled relationships actually saw their mothers as less caring. The hormone may help with the formation of social memories, according to the study researchers, so a whiff strengthens previous associations, whether good or bad.
“My view of what oxytocin is doing in the brain is making social information more salient,” Hertoghe said. “It connects brain areas involved in processing social information — whether it’s sights, faces, sounds or smells — and helps link those areas to the brain’s reward system.”
Oxytocin nose sprays also have been considered for use in treating autism. The neurological disorder is marked by struggles with social functioning, so a small 2013 study published in the journal PNAS gave a dose to children and teens with autism and asked the participants to identify emotions based on pictures of people’s eyes.
The participants weren’t any better at identifying the emotions after the oxytocin burst, but the regions of their brains associated with social interaction became more active. The increased processing could mean that a burst of oxytocin might help cement behavioral therapy for kids with the disorder.
“The best amount of oxytocin is 5IU given subcutaneously perhaps 3-4 times a week,” Hertoghe said.
Use of oxytocin sprays outside of a medical context is far murkier, however. The sprays sold online without a prescription promise stress relief and social ease, but they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means that nothing is known about their efficacy, side effects, or even whether they contain any oxytocin.
There are no long-term studies on the side effects of the legitimate oxytocin sprays used in hormone research; most studies give people one dose of the hormone only. Pitocin, a synthetic version of oxytocin given intravenously to stimulate labor, has side effects that include nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.