Preliminary research on plasma oxytocin in normal cycling women: investigating emotion and interpersonal distress.
The neurohormone oxytocin is responsible for initiating childbirth and the let-down reflex in lactating women and is released during sexual orgasm. Oxytocin has been thought of as an affiliation hormone because research on nonhuman mammals has demonstrated that it plays a key role in the initiation of maternal behavior and the formation of adult pair bonds. It has been speculated that social stimuli may induce oxytocin release and that oxytocin may make positive social contact more rewarding. Data are presented from an initial study to examine change in plasma oxytocin in response to a standard imagery task that elicits emotion related to attachment. Twenty-five normal cycling, healthy women underwent imagery tasks and completed questionnaires on attachment and interpersonal problems. Blood draws (5 ml) were bone via an indwelling catheter before, during, and after three interventions (massage, positive emotion, and negative emotion) and to establish baselines. Overall, the data showed a tendency for oxytocin levels to be elevated in response to relaxation massage and decreased in response to sad emotion. There were individual differences in response to the interventions. Those who showed evidence of increased oxytocin levels for positive emotion and massage and who maintained oxytocin levels during negative emotion were less likely to report interpersonal problems associated with intrusiveness. Maintaining oxytocin levels during sadness was also correlated with lower anxiety in close relationships. Women who were in a couple relationship had greater increases in oxytocin in response to positive emotion. In contrast, higher basal levels of oxytocin were associated with greater interpersonal distress. These data suggest that peripheral secretion of oxytocin in response to emotional stimuli is associated with the individual's interpersonal characteristics.