Oxytocin and Dopamine: The Rewards of Socializing
Node Smith, ND
“With so much hatred and anger in the world, what could possibly be more important than understanding the mechanisms in the brain that make us want to be friendly with other people?” Robert Malenka, MD, PhD
This quote came from an interview with Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University School of Medicine, regarding research on oxytocin’s interaction with dopamine.1
Dopamine is the Principal Neurotransmitter of the Reward System
It’s known that dopamine is a principal neurotransmitter of the reward system. It is produced by neurons of the ventral tegmental area and shuttled via nerve tract to a deep portion of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. The stimulation of dopamine, and its subsequent release in the nucleus accumbens, leads to feelings of pleasure, which supports survival-enhancing behaviors – such as eating, drinking, and mating. It is also the area of the brain most often implicated with drug addiction – drugs stimulate this pleasure center inappropriately. Stimulation of these areas also enhances remembrance of events leading up to the chemical’s release.
Oxytocin is the “Love Hormone”
Up until now, it has not been known how exactly the pleasure pathway is affected by social interaction. It has been known that there is dopamine release involved in social behavior, though how this comes about has been elusive. The answer has to do with oxytocin – the “love hormone.”
Study Shows Oxytocin as Catalyst for Dopamine Release
The current study shows that oxytocin, a hormone released by the paraventricular nucleus within the hypothalamus, is actually stimulating dopamine release during social interactions. Oxytocin is the chemical thought to be involved with mother-child bonding, female sexual arousal, lifetime pair-bonding, and the emotional connection we feel when socializing with others. It is produced by a part of the brain which is instrumental in regulating many of the most basic and necessary physical rhythms of the body: sleep, hunger, thirst, and emotional reaction.
Study Confirms Tract Running from Paraventricular Nucleus to Ventral Tegmental Area Ferrying Oxytocin
The study confirms that there is a tract running from the paraventricular nucleus to the ventral tegmental area carrying oxytocin. They also showed that stimulation of this tract resulted in increased social interaction, and that this neural activity was necessary for normal social behavior. This is due to enhanced firing in the reward-circuit tract during socialization.
- Hung LW, Neuner S, Polepalli JS, et al. Gating of social reward by oxytocin in the ventral tegmental area. Science. 2017;357(6358):1406-1411.
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Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four 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.