Dopamine and Social Bonding

Oxytocin with a Dopamine Boost

In an interesting study recently published, dopamine was added to oxytocin as a neurotransmitter specifically involved in human to human social bonding.1 Oxytocin has long been regarded as the hormone responsible for social bonding, and maternal-child bonding, but dopamine, which has long been known to be a primary driver of reward reinforcement of behavior, is now being shown to act similarly.

This may be important in forming connections between known dysregulators of dopamine in the brain – alcohol/drugs, sugar, insomnia, and stress – and the ability to socially bond.

Mothers in Sync

Dopamine responses were shown to be significantly increased during maternal-infant interaction within the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), the amygdala, and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which form an intrinsic network (referred to as the “medial amygdala network”) that supports social functioning.1 This activity was also linked to social synchronicity, which is important in creating strong social bonds and is lost in depressed individuals and children with autistic spectrum disorders.2 In this study, synchronous mothers had stronger dopamine responses to their own infants in the medial amygdala network.

There is relatively little research on how oxytocin is affected by stimulants, addiction, trauma, stress, and other external factors, however the research on dopamine in this regard is plentiful. This recent connection between dopamine and socialization may be a gateway to admitting a connection between dopamine antagonists and certain sociological factors. It also further supports using socialization methods for improving outcomes from disorders known to be caused by decreased dopamine response – addictions, depression.

Social Affiliation Stimulates Dopamine

“We found that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, the study’s lead author. “This link implies that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease, such as depression, where dopamine is compromised. We already know that people deal with illness better when they have a strong social network. What our study suggests is that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels.”

Sources:

  1. Atzil S, Touroutoglou A, Rudy T, et al. Dopamine in the medial amygdala network mediates human bonding.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017. pii: 201612233. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1612233114.
  2. Slaughter V, Ong SS. Social behaviors increase more when children with ASD are imitated by their mother vs. an unfamiliar adult. Autism Res, 2014; 7(5):582–589.

Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision. 

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