Researchers from the Stanford University Medical Center have discovered a link between the amounts of oxytocin in the bloodstream and in the cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) surrounding the brain. The hormone oxytocin has always been associated with the development of anxiety and certain social behaviors. Many scientists have attempted to study these factors by analyzing the levels of oxytocin in the brain, but the taking of cerebro-spinal fluid presents a myriad of potential risks to the patients. The study, led by Professor Karen Parker, has provided a safer and less invasive method for measuring the oxytocin levels. The findings show promising results for patients suffering from anxiety or autism spectrum disorders. The information discovered could become an instrumental factor in diagnosing these disorders, as well as in developing methods of treatment.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin belongs to the group of neurohypophysial hormones. These hormones are manufactured by the hypothalamus and secreted and stored in the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin has an integral role in the sexual reproduction of both males and females, and is responsible for facilitating many biological processes during childbirth, such as the contraction of muscles in the uterus. Most studies on oxytocin have been targeted toward its influence on several psychological behaviors, such as social bonding and interaction, anxiety, maternal behavior, and even sexual orgasm. Genetic abnormalities in the oxytocin receptor gene are believed to be connected to certain unfavorable social behaviors, including outward aggression and becoming socially withdrawn. Oxytocin has been labeled the “bonding hormone” for its role in encouraging empathy and trust among social groups and influencing the ostracism of non-group members.
Problems with CSF extraction
The standard procedure for measuring oxytocin levels in cerebro-spinal fluid is by collecting a fluid sample. The method for fluid extraction is an invasive procedure known as a lumbar puncture, also referred to as a spinal tap. During this process, a physician inserts a needle into an area of the lower lumbar region of the spine, in between two spinal vertebrae. The procedure normally takes a few minutes, while the needle extracts the fluid culture to be analyzed. There are several risks to such a delicate invasive method, such as infection, nerve damage, pain for the patient, fluid leakage, and bleeding that could occur in the spinal cord.
Measuring from the bloodstream
The research conducted by Parker’s team sought to measure oxytocin levels through the bloodstream by taking a simple blood sample. They gathered a group of 27 test subjects of various ages and collected cerebro-spinal fluids from a lumbar puncture while taking a blood sample. The results showed a definitive connection between oxytocin in both blood and CSF. The scientists also surveyed the anxiety levels of the subjects through questionnaires. While oxytocin levels are generally lower in the blood than in CSF, both compartments were discovered to follow the same patterns in terms of anxiety scores. Subjects with low levels of blood oxytocin also showed low levels of CSF oxytocin, and this in turn corresponded to higher anxiety levels. Thus, regulating oxytocin levels could be used as a potential treatment in controlling anxiety disorders.
These findings present very promising results for future studies. Parker and the lead author of the study, Dean Carson, claim that the information discovered could be used in the treatment of anxiety symptoms in autistic children. The varying level of oxytocin among children with autism suggests that oxytocin therapy may produce different benefits for different patients. Researchers are also testing to determine if oxytocin could be used to treat a variety of other psychiatric conditions, such as social withdrawal and phobias.