“Under the Microscope” is a column in which The Airspace explores an interesting microscopic entity, from molecules to viruses, every week. By exposing you to these miniscule yet highly influential subjects, we hope to instill an appreciation for nature’s intricate structures that affect our lives in significant ways.
Oxytocin: The Love Molecule
Dubbed the “cuddle chemical” by neuroscientists, oxytocin is a central molecule in the complex body systems of all mammals, from mice to humans. This nine-amino-acid peptide is responsible for empathy, all types of bonding, stress relief, social cognition, and even morality. Oxytocin is the cornerstone of human connection, and without it, the word “love” likely wouldn’t be in our vocabulary.
Oxytocin is involved in bonding between mates, mother and child, and even friends and non-relatives. It has the ability to increase trust and cultivate intimacy. This molecule’s role in attachment is what gives it the nickname the “cuddle chemical,” as it can literally increase physical attraction and between two individuals. The amount of oxytocin exponentially increases during sexual intercourse, and the brain floods with this exhilarating hormone during orgasm. After intercourse, the levels of oxytocin remain high, which is a possible explanation of why some couples cuddle after having sex. Oxytocin’s responsibility for maternal attachment is evident in its presence in breast milk. The hormone is transferred between the mother and the infant, and in return cultivates trust, comfort, and maternal instincts. The combination of this hormone’s emotional byproducts is thought to be responsible for the emotion of love; therefore, oxytocin is the chemical compound that causes love.
In addition to its role in bonding, this multipurpose molecule is known to decrease levels of cortisol, a hormone produced when someone is stressed out. Oxytocin also has the ability to lower blood pressure, and thus relieves stress even more. Its stress-relieving mechanisms help decrease anxiety in social situations, allowing conversation partners to build positive feelings toward one another, and continue to perpetuate the cycle of oxytocin production and cortisol reduction as the positive emotions increase with the length of the social interaction.
Interestingly enough, the presence of oxytocin not only alleviates regular social anxiety, but some symptoms of social disorders. Studies have shown that doses of oxytocin improve social functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder . Children who were given oxytocin in the form of nasal spray exhibited increased activation of brain areas that are known to be involved in social skills. This social activation is significant because people with autism usually demonstrate little to no social intelligence and display abnormal social behavior such as an inability to read facial expressions, communication problems, and minimal desire to interact with other people  . Oxytocin is now being considered as a potential cure to the social dysfunctions that accompany autism spectrum disorder, making it the first effective treatment to this aspect of the disorder.
From facilitating bonding and trust to being a potential cure of autism, this cuddly chemical is excruciatingly important in human relationships. To put its importance in perspective, the human experience would be vastly different from how we know it without oxytocin. So go spend time with a loved one or have a good conversation and appreciate the benefits of this magnificent molecule yourself.
Melissa is a sophomore at Northwestern University studying cognitive science. She is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, neuroanatomy, and the cognitive processes involved in morality. Melissa enjoys painting/building/designing theatrical scenery, assisting with psychological research, and singing classical music. When she’s not busy with one of the aforementioned activities, she’s probably doodling pictures of pyramidal neurons or fighting for social justice.