Many know oxytocin as the ‘love hormone.’ Known to produce feelings of attachment and enhance social bonds, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry have found that, in specific contexts, it may also induce aggression.
For this finding, the researchers used optogenetics to see how oxytocin would impact the mice’s behavior, allowing them to switch specific neurons on and off in the brain using light. In this case, they used the technique to administer a protein into the mice’s brain cells responsible for the production of oxytocin.
To see how the mice would behave while their oxytocin-producing cells were stimulated in different environments, they placed mice first in a semi-natural lab setting, and then in a standard, sterile lab setup.
In the more natural environment, the mice first demonstrated friendly interest in each other. Quickly, however, their behavior spiraled into aggression. Meanwhile, in traditional lab conditions, the researchers observed that increased oxytocin was associated with reduced aggression among the mice.
They said that in a more natural setting, one would expect to see more aggression between males as they compete for food and space. As the lab environment did not have the same resources for the mice to argue over, oxytocin seemed to have a different effect- fueling a social bond rather than rivalry. The researchers thus say that although oxytocin can enhance feelings of closeness, its ultimate effect is dependent on setting, context, and personality.
For oxytocin to be used in therapeutic ways for people, the researchers say that far more research is needed to understand its nuanced effects. In particular, they say that to understand complex aspects of behavior, it will be necessary to study how behavior interacts with and changes in complex environments. It is only at this point, they say, that such findings will be able to translate over to human behavior in a meaningful way.