Reuters Health

Hormone May Play Role In Relationships

Wednesday, July 21, 1999

Oxytocin, a hormone that plays an important role in many maternal activities, may also play a role in relationships, according to a report.

The study is one of the first to look at the biological basis for human attachment and bonding, said lead researcher, Dr. Rebecca A. Turner, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

"In the animal literature, oxytocin has been implicated in maternal behaviors and pair bonding," Turner told Reuters Health in an interview. "We wanted to see if it had a similar function in human bodies."

In humans, oxytocin levels rise in women during childbirth and nursing, and it has recently been discovered that the hormone is also released during sexual orgasm in both genders.

Twenty-five women participated in the study. As part of it, they were asked to conjure a positive emotion, such as "love or infatuation." The women were also asked to recall a time of loss. In addition, some of the participants were given a 15-minute massage, which has been shown to induce oxytocin release in rats, the investigators explain.

The study examined the correlation between oxytocin levels and the women's involvement in relationships, their level of anxiety in relationships, and the difficulty they experienced being alone. Personality characteristics were measured by standardized tests, and blood samples were taken to measure oxytocin levels.

The researchers report that massage did cause oxytocin levels to rise, but recalling positive emotions did not. Negative emotions caused oxytocin levels to drop.

The study results also showed that women who had higher levels of the hormone during massage and while remembering positive emotions tended to have fewer problems in interpersonal relationships than those with lower levels. Maintaining oxytocin levels during sadness was correlated with lower anxiety in close relationships.

"It seems that having this hormone available during positive experiences and not being depleted of it during negative experiences, is associated with well-being in relationships," said Turner, who is also director of student research at the California School of Professional Psychology, Alameda.

Turner believes these preliminary results are encouraging, and expects to learn more from future studies with more participants.

SOURCE: Psychiatry 1999;62:97-113.