Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oxytocin: Liquid Trust and Artificial Love

The website for the company Vero Labs sells a product called Liquid Trust. It is a hormone-based spray that, when applied like a cologne, is supposed to help win the trust of those around you. According to the website, the spray contains “pure human Oxytocin”, a hormone and neuropeptide that is involved in emotions such as trust, social bonding, and even love. The idea of a commercially available product that can secretly control the behavior of those nearby seems too far-fetched to be possible, and, in fact, it is. But surprisingly, the problem with Liquid Trust is not the ingredients but the dosing. In a 2005 Boston Globe Article neuroeconomist Paul Zak explained that the amount of oxytocin that would be inhaled by standing next to someone wearing Liquid Trust is not enough to have any behavioral effect and called the product “totally bogus”.

A bottle of Liquid Trust

So then, what can oxytocin do if taken in a high enough dose? Zak coauthored a study in the journal Nature that demonstrated the hormone’s trust-increasing effects. In an investment game, participants were more likely to give over money if they had inhaled an oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin also helps form emotional bonds in relationships between romantic partners and parents and their children.

An oxytocin molecule (Wikipedia)

Some researchers hope that oxytocin can be used to treat people with conditions such as social anxiety and autism who have trouble feeling comfortable and connected in social situations. But there is also the possibility that it could be abused. The Boston Globe and National Geographic articles mention the possibilities of oxytocin being used at political rallies (to gain the trust of the audience), by businesses (to make customers feel more comfortable spending money), or even as a date-rape drug. Increasing oxytocin levels could also have undesired side effects. For example, doses of oxytocin have been shown to increase ethnocentrism and xenophobia since the hormone seems to primarily increase trust towards those in a person’s “in-group”. While this research seems to suggest that a dose of oxytocin can instantly lead to feelings of trust, comfort, connection, and even love, it is not exactly that simple. Research conducted by Larry Young at Emory University showed that oxytocin and vasopressin (another hormone) can explain the differences in the mating behaviors of the monogamous, pair-bonding prairie voles and the promiscuous meadow voles.

Prairie voles (New York Times)

When the prairie voles mate, oxytocin and vasopressin are released in their brains, leading to lifelong bonding. Giving injections of these hormones to prairie voles that have not mated can still cause them to bond. But giving these hormones to the meadow voles does not affect their behavior since they also lack oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the regions of the brain involved in reward processing. Genetic differences in the expression of the receptors also mean that even among prairie vole males, some are more likely to be monogamous than others. And there is evidence for the existence of similar genetic differences among humans, meaning that oxytocin will not affect everyone the same way. Still, this research has led to talk of using hormone (and even genetic) therapies to help people stay faithful to their partners and to keep marriages stable. And also to do the exact opposite: creating an “anti-love drug” to prevent people from becoming over-invested in their relationships. These methods of artificially regulating love bring up additional questions about the ethics of using medical technology to change “normal” behaviors and to chemically alter our emotions. While “love drugs” might, at first, seem like a form of mind control, how is taking medication to treat infidelity or infatuation different from taking them to treat depression or ADHD? And how would using oxytocin be different than attending therapy to resolve the same issues? Some of the reluctance towards the medication route might have to do with the negative connotations of psychiatric drugs, but there are deeper issues involved about freewill, our ability to choose, our sense of self, and our position in society. These questions are currently being asked about existing treatments, and as neuroscience and neurotechnology continue to advance, more such issues will arise.

--Jonah Queen
Neuroethics Program Intern




Want to cite this post?
Queen, J. (2011). Oxytocin: Liquid Trust and Artificial Love. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2011/10/oxytocin-liquid-trust-and-artificial.html

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