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Do prison sentences alter oxytocin levels?

Editor’s Note: Guest post by NEWest Leader, Livia Merrill

Livia Merrill is a
recent graduate from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, where she has
received both her B.S. and M.S. in Neuroscience. Her research of 4 years under Dr. Fiona Inglis, PhD, consisted of dendritic morphological changes
in the prefrontal cortex of non-human primates after the administration of PCP.
Having psychomimetic effects, this model was utilized to contribute to the study of
schizophrenia and to provide for more effective anti-psychotics. Her current
pursuit is under Dr. Stacy Drury, PhD to examine cortisol levels of pregnant mothers
in some of the underprivileged neighborhoods of New Orleans and the epigenetic effects on their offspring. Livia’s future plans consist of research
behind deviant behavior and rehabilitating subjects. Ideally, she hopes to
contribute to change in the criminal justice system, where punishment can
transition to rehabilitation, by demonstrating the negative effects of adverse
experiences, including punishment-based systems.

The United States has the largest population of incarcerated individuals in the world; the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate there are approximately 1.6 million inmates. Such numbers not only reveal the number of imprisoned individuals but also provide an idea of the massive impact on family members, victims, and other members of society. Furthermore, recidivism rates have revealed that one-quarter to two-thirds of released persons from state prisons are rearrested within 3 years.i Personal accounts, governmental reviews, and actions by prison activists and social workers have unveiled the grave conditions of these institutions. Such examples include a 2012 case where Los Angeles deputies were accused of violently beating inmates of the L.A. County Jail Complexii and a case in 2013 where a Mississippi prison for the mentally ill was accused of being understaffed and having deplorable living conditions, such as rat infestations, rampant diseases, sexual assaults, and malnourishment of food and medicinal treatment.iii

An example of a typical cell in Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, LA. (Via

Health and concerns for these men and women are virtually non-existent, such as one prison in Californiaiv that had an appalling amount of suicides last year. A counterargument for lack of concern for incarcerated individuals might include the lack of finances to support such a cause; however, with shorter sentences and reduced willingness to commit nonviolent offenders, there would be funds available to focus on making prison a less negative and oppressing environment, where proper staff, medical care, and basic human rights are concerns. It is important to note that all prison facilities have varying security levels depending on the crime and how violent the offender is considered, with maximum-security prisons undoubtedly having the most questionable conditions concerning the rights of inmates. Under such conditions, we are arguably creating more antisocial individuals than the ones who were originally sentenced. Such transformation can be explicitly seen through past reviews and experiments, like the Stanford Prison Experiment.v This was designed to mimic prison conditions, where research volunteers played the role as guards or prisoners. The experiment lasted only 6 days, despite its original 14-day plan, due to the anxiety, depression, and overall dehumanizing effects on the “prisoners” and the power and aggressive traits that accompanied the “guards.” This experiment in itself portrays the effects of such drastic hierarchies on human emotion, psychology, and action.

With the increasing evidence of epigenetics demonstrating the effects of the environment on the expression of genes and hormones, I think it is important to realize that the first step of rehabilitating prisoners and transitioning them back into society in a way that minimizes recidivism would be to focus on the conditions of their prison environment. I do believe there is a need for prisons, without such, crime may run rampant, putting the safety of society at risk. However, the corruption in the system lends itself to release inmates back into society and out of prison more hostile than when they entered because of the environment in which they were held throughout their sentence. Typically, such examples includes physical abuse by guards and other prisoners and long-term solitary

Is this type of environment leading to emotional, physiological, and biological changes within these men and women? And if so, is there a (neuro-)intervention that we can use to further explore harmful effects on prison-mates (and reverberating effects on society)?

A possible candidate for such an exploration is oxytocin. Oxytocin (OT) is a peptide with a wide array of functions in the human body both as a hormone and a neurotransmitter released by the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is primarily responsible for homeostasis throughout the body. Because recent research has indicated the role of OT in social interaction and behavior, OT is being explored as a potential treatment for antisocial disorders, autismvii, and psychopathologies.viii In recent years, OT has been dubbed the “love drug,” via experiments with intranasal administration of OT and its effects on empathy, trust, and generosity. These intranasal deliveries have resulted in improved emotional recognition,ix cooperation, and social affiliation in human relationships.x Oxytocin even seems to facilitate romantic attachments and physical intimacy.xi Higher levels of OT have also been linked to a decrease in anxiety and the release of glucocorticoidsxiii, or stress hormones.

Oxytocin has been socially misconstrued to be the solution to romantic obstacles (Via

The behaviors correlated with OT release, as seen in both human and animal models,xiv seem to be highly dependent on context and the environment. In positive environments, those with social support and camaraderie, OT release does link to pro-social behavior and an increase in trust. However, in a negative environment, such as experiences with infidelity and dishonesty, without positive social cues, OT has been shown to increase defensiveness and decrease cooperation.xv Another experiment demonstrated that intranasal OT administration stimulated in-group conformity, when given visual stimuli of “teammates,” while creating a bias against out-groups, when given visual stimuli of the “opposing team.”xvi Others have shown an increase in defensive aggression towards threatening out-groups.xvii

Due to the research indicating the potential positive or negative role of OT in societal interactions and how its actions are contextually based, the question arises, how do the levels of OT vary for prisoners-who have engaged in anti-social or negative social behaviors as deemed by our legal system- in comparison to those who are not incarcerated? Would experiencing imprisonment facilitate a decrease or increase in OT release, leading to decreased prosocial behaviors like empathy or increased hostility?

The location of the hypothalamus in the brain (Via MedlinePlus)

Longitudinal studies with individuals during prison sentences would be useful in determining if OT levels vary at the start or end of a prison sentence. To ensure the noninvasive nature needed to conduct such a study, saliva has been used to detect OT levels.xviii Through personal interviews and salivary samples, exploring the conditions and relationships formed in prison may provide a useful tool for not only physiological changes within a subset of our population but also biological coping mechanisms for the whole of society, such as involvement of immune function and stress responses, which have been shown to improve in the presence of OT with social support.xix Perhaps by demonstrating changes in OT release, modifications in prison conditions may be recommended, like the elimination of solitary confinement and the death penalty. These types of changes ideally could decrease the recidivism rate, by providing for a smoother transition upon release of prisoners back into society, where the inmates wouldn’t carry the antisocial mindset of proving strength by violence. For example, one prison in Norway is modeled as a respectful and collaborative community, and despite having violent offenders, it boasts one of the lowest reoffending rates. This type of environment removes the culture shock returning to society after engraining an aggressive attitude during prison.xx

The hope would be to use biological changes, like differing OT levels before and after a prison sentence, as evidence to demonstrate the need for improvements in prison conditions and allow for a more rehabilitative system versus a retributive one.


i Bureau of Justice Statistics

ii Rosas v. Baca. Central District of California. 24 July 2012. The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.

iii Dockery v. Epps. Southern District of Mississippi. 30 May 2013. The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.

iv Rodriguez, S. 15, March 2013. California Prison Conditions Driving Prisoners to Suicide. Solitary Watch: News from a Nation in Lockdown.

v Zimbardo, P. 1971. Stanford Prison Experiment. A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University.

vi Ridgeway, J. and Casella, J. 14, May 2013. America’s 10 Worst Prisons. MotherJones.

vii Opar, A. 2008. Search for potential autism treatments turns to ‘trust hormone.’ Nature Medicine 14: 353.

viii Feifel, D., et al. 2010. Adjunctive intranasal oxytocin reduces symptoms in schizophrenia patients. 68(7):678-670.

ix Di Simplicio, M., et al. 2009. Oxytocin enhances processing of positive versus negative emotional information in healthy male volunteers. Journal of Pyschopharmacology 23(3): 241-248.

x Ross, HE., and Young, LJ. 2009. Oxytocin and the neural mechanisms regulating social cognition and affiliative behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 30(4):534-547.

xi Schneiderman, I., et al. 2012. Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: relation to couples’ interactive reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology 37(8): 1277-1285.

xii Missig, G., et al. 2010. Oxytocin reduces background anxiety in a fear-potentiated startle paradigm. Neuropsychopharmacology 35(13): 2607-2616.

xiii Heinrichs, M., et al. 2003. Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry 54(12): 1389-1398.

xiv Reviewed in Yamasue, H., et al. 2012. Integrative approaches utilizing oxytocin to enhance prosocial behavior: from animal and human social behavior to autistic social dysfunction. The Journal of Neuroscience 32(41):14109-14117.

xv Declerck, C., et al. 2010. Oxytocin and cooperation under conditions of uncertainty: the modulating role of incentives and social information. Hormones and Behavior 57(3): 3368-374.

xvi Stallen, M., et al. 2012. The herding hormone: oxytocin stimulates in-group conformity. Psychological Science 23(11): 1288-1292.

xvii De Dreu, C., et al. 2010. The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates parochial altruism in intergroup conflict among humans. Science 328(5984):1408-1411.

xviii White-Traut et al. 2009. Detection of salivary oxytocin levels in lactating women. Developmental Pyschobiology 51(4):367-373.

xix Chen, F., et al. 2011. Common oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphism and social support interact to reduce stress in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108:19937-19942.

xx James, Erwin. 24, Feb. 2013. The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people. The Guardian.

Want to cite this post?

Merrill, L. (2014). Do prison sentences alter oxytocin levels? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Very interesting, Livia! This line of research meshes with some work I discuss here:

    And to some extent here:

    Perhaps we'll chat about it one day. Best, Adam Kolber


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