Oxytocin and Parenting: Not just for voles anymore!

Sep 20 2010 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Neuroscience, Uncategorized

Sci saw this paper. She's going to start with some caveats. She thinks the paper is cool. BUT, it appears to be one of those papers that is HIGHLY subject to overinterpretation and possible panic.

So Don't Panic.

And now we're going to talk about oxytocin. And parenting. In humans. It ain't just for voles anymore.

ResearchBlogging.org Gordon et al. "oxytocin and the development of parenting in humans" Biological Psychiatry, 2010.

I'm sure you have all heard about the prairie vole. An adorable and unassuming little critter, the prairie vole has a big distinction from it's meadow vole cousins (prairies vs meadows, though, I don't know about that). The prairie vole is monogamous, quite strongly so. And a while back scientists found that this monogamy was caused by the neurochemical OXYTOCIN.
(No notes on who wears the pants when the animals are pantsless by nature)

Oxytocin was then known as a chemical which stimulates pair bonding. But it quickly became clear that it was important for more than that. Oxytocin has been shown to be important for proper parenting skills in lots of species of mammals, most particularly in the formation of a parent-infant bond. In fact, it's such a big deal that a central injection of oxytocin can actually induce full parenting behavior in female voles, monkeys, and sheep.

Oxytocin is present in humans and has lots of known biological effects, including lactation and birth. But the question is: if other mammals have parenting behavior stimulated by oxytocin...what about humans? Oxytocin administration nasally (you can do it as a spray) has been shown in some studies to increase trusting behaviors and reduce negative behaviors during partner conflict. So that's social behavior, and we've got effects on parenting-related biology such as lactation...what about parenting behaviors itself? Are they directly related to oxytocin levels?

To get at this, the authors of this study took 80 couples, all living together, and their first-born children (about 80% of the mothers were breastfeeding). They visited the couples twice, once during the first month and once during the sixth month, collected blood from both parents, and observed parenting behavior.

As you can see above, they found that men and women both had roughly equal levels of oxytocin, and they also found that mothers and fathers both had increases in oxytocin at month 6 as compared to month 1. They ALSO found that the oxytocin levels between the fathers and mothers were interrelated, so if the father had higher oxytocin, the mother was likely to as well.

They they looked at play behavior and parents behavior between the parents and the kids. They looked at two different types of behavior: affectionate play behavior and stimulatory play behavior. Affectionate play behavior leans toward more singsong like vocalizations (they call this Mommyese) and hugs and snuggles, and stimulatory play behavior tends toward things like object presenting (showing toys and things), and playing with the baby in a stimulatory way, like touching and pointing to feet and hands.

And this was where they found something rather neat. The authors found a correlation between MOTHER oxytocin and affectionate play, and between FATHER oxytocin and stimulatory play, but no correlations between mother oxytocin and stimulatory play or father oxytocin and affectionate play. So basically, the more oxytocin the parents had, the more time the mothers spent in affectionate play, and the more time the fathers spent in stimulatory play.

Take home message? Oxytocin levels increase over the first six months of parenting in both fathers and mothers. And oxytocin levels are correlated with increased affectionate and stimulatory play behavior between the parents and their kids.

Now, this is an interesting study. But don't get all panicky on the "OMG if oxytocin levels are low you will be a BAD PARENT." This study raises several questions which I think they still do need to answer.

1) Mothers and fathers had interrelated oxytocin levels. Is that because their oxytocin levels affect each other? Or do people choose their mates based on behavior which correlates with a particular oxytocin level?

2) While they did see correlations between oxytocin and play behavior, I'd like to see some heftier data here. Specifically, I know you can give oxytocin as a nasal spray. How do the mothers and the fathers play after receiving a spray of oxytocin? Is the oxytocin level correlational or causational?

3) Is straight up affectionate or stimulatory play behavior entirely predictive of whether or not the person is a good parent?

4) Is it the oxytocin level that matters? What about receptors? What specific areas of the brain are important?

So basically, we can say that oxytocin is correlated with play behavior with their babies in mothers and fathers, but is it what causes good parenting? The real answer is probably much more complex than one chemical alone. So don't panic and go in search of oxytocin spray, we've got a long way to go before we find the secret of good parenting. Though it appears to be enough for the voles.

Gordon, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J., & Feldman, R. (2010). Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans Biological Psychiatry, 68 (4), 377-382 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.02.005

4 responses so far

  • [...] Oxytocin and Parenting: Not just for voles anymore! [...]

  • DNLee says:

    you had me at Vole. I've studied both prairie and meadow voles and they are VERY different behaviorally. Did you have a question about the two species or what's the difference between a prairie and meadow, the landscapes?

    • scicurious says:

      I think I love the phrase "you had me at Vole". 🙂 I must use that in my daily life.

      Really, my question was what's the difference between a prairie and a meadow?! Is it size? Position? I imagine there's a vast ecological difference, but...

      • DNLee says:

        Actually no.

        Both are fields of grass. The difference is scope and nearby landscape.

        A meadow is a field of grass, wild flowers, forbs, etc in the middle of a woodland - imagine a grass island in a forest.
        A prairie is an endless field of grass, etc that just goes on. Both tend to be flat an relatively dense/thick with lush vegetation. But I tend to think meadows have more taller (6 ft or higher), itchy, sticky grass varieties (like switch & johnson grasses). Prairies have moreshorter grasses (4-5 ft tall), legumes (alfalfa, clover), wild flowers (sunflowers).

        Related concept is a glade with a field of grass, forbs, flowers, etc but tends to be rocky with some sweeping slopes and not as dense in vegetation - they tend to be in drier climates.

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