For those who are coupled up and not feeling in the mood, or new mothers who haven’t found their mother-infant bonding rhythm yet, research shows that it might not be you, but instead the low oxytocin levels in your body.
A study, done at the University of Cardiff and presented at the Society of Endocrinology annual conference in Brighton, revealed that people with low levels of oxytocin, sometimes due to medical conditions, perform poorly on empathy exercises. Research also shows that the psychological well-being and quality of life of individuals living with diminished oxytocin levels could ultimately benefit from hormone replacement therapy.
Often dubbed the ‘love hormone’ because it regulates the human behavior areas of sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety and mother-infant bonding, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus. This is the area of the brain controlling mood and appetite. The hypothalamus is stored in the pea-sized pituitary gland, which sits in the base of the skull.
Researchers examined the empathetic behavior of people suspected of having reduced oxytocin levels due to one or more medical conditions stemming from pituitary surgery.
Some People Can’t Recognize Emotional Expression
The study assessed two groups of 20 people with cranial diabetes insipidus (CDI) and 15 people with hypopituitarism (HP), a condition that occurs when the pituitary gland doesn’t release enough hormones. With CDI, your body has lower levels of ADH, a chemical produced in the hypothalamus, which is similar to oxytocin.
These two patient groups were compared to a group of 20 healthy controls. The participants were given two tasks designed to test empathy, relating to recognizing emotional expression, and which also measured each group’s oxytocin levels. The research found:
- 35 CDI and HP participants had lower oxytocin levels compared to the healthy group
- Overall, CDI and HP participants performed noticeably worse on empathy tasks in comparison to control group
- CDI candidates’ ability to identify expression was predicted by their oxytocin levels, and participants with the lowest levels of oxytocin performed the worst
“This is the first study which looks at low oxytocin as a result of medical, as opposed to psychological, disorders,” said Katie Daughters, lead researcher. “If replicated, the results from our patient groups suggest it is also important to consider medical conditions carrying a risk of low oxytocin levels.”
Although researchers plan to expand their study, which are only preliminary results, to confirm their findings, this study could serve as the foundation for the psychological well-being of these oxytocin-deficient patients.
“Patients who have undergone pituitary surgery, and in particular those who have acquired CDI as a consequence, may present with lower oxytocin levels,” continued Daughters. “This could impact on their emotional behaviour, and in turn affect their psychological well-being. Perhaps we should be considering the introduction of oxytocin level checks in these cases.”