Drunk in love? The ‘love hormone’ has similar effects to alcohol

A new review from the University of Birmingham has shown that the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin may not be as cuddly as we think, because its effects are very similar to those of alcohol.

The authors reviewed studies that examined the effects of oxytocin and alcohol, and found that they were remarkably alike. Oxytocin is produced by the brain in childbirth and after activities such as cuddling. It has been linked to choosing romantic partners and altruistic behaviour, hence its positive reputation. However, according to Dr Ian Mitchell, one of the authors of this research, “it can also have antisocial effects and those are very very similar to alcohol.”

Both alcohol and oxytocin affect a structure at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which continues developing through adolescence and into our early twenties. By reducing the activity in this area, both alcohol and oxytocin can reduce us to a ‘childlike’ state. Both compounds also have a direct effect on our brain’s reward circuits, which is why we enjoy them so much.

Because of its positive reputation oxytocin has been recommended to treat several psychological disorders such as anxiety. According to Dr Mitchell, “the world has fallen in love with oxytocin and is recommending that it should be prescribed for a whole range of conditions, and what we’re trying to make people aware of is that we actually understand very little about it. We don’t know too much about how it acts on the brain… We don’t know what happens at different doses, we don’t know what happens when you give repeated doses and we don’t know what agents it interacts with.”

While both alcohol and oxytocin can have positive effects such as reducing anxiety, especially in social situations, we know that alcohol has a dark side in addiction and anti-social behaviour. The finding that oxytocin is so similar to alcohol, suggests we should be aware of a potential dark side to the ‘love hormone’.

 

Reference:

Mitchell, I.J., Gillespie, S.M., & Abu-Akel, A. (2015). Similar effects of intranasal oxytocin administration and acute alcohol consumption on socio-cognitions, emotions and behaviour: Implications for the mechanisms of action. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 55, pp. 98–106  doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.04.018

 

Image credit: flickr/Kimery Davis

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