Hormone heightens memories of mom
November 29th, 2010
04:07 PM ET

Hormone heightens memories of mom

You may have heard of the "cuddle hormone" or the "bonding hormone." It's the brain chemical oxytocin, and it affects attachment between two people. You get a rush of oxytocin from a hug, for example,  because of the  emotional connection that you have with a particular person.

But new research suggests that oxytocin doesn't have the same effects on everyone. Oxytocin may also heighten social memories, says a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, led by Jennifer Bartz of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, looked at adult men who recalled memories of their mother in childhood. In one session, they were given oxytocin in their nostrils and then asked to talk about these memories; in the other, they took a placebo. Beforehand, researchers assessed how much anxiety these men tend to have about close relationships in general, a measure called attachment anxiety.

It turns out that in men with more anxiety about close relationships, oxytocin brought out more ambivalent memories about the way their mothers had cared for them. They also said they remembered feeling less close to their mothers in childhood. But men who did not express attachment anxiety reported more positive memories about their mother's affection and closeness after receiving oxytocin.

The central idea is that social situations trigger oxytocin which, in conjunction with other brain chemicals, helps people pay attention to social cues, and plays a role in encoding these memories, Bartz said. This hypothesis is still being worked out, she said.

In other lines of research, scientists are looking at the therapeutic benefits of oxytocin for various mental disorders. But these results suggest that oxytocin's effects may depend on the individual and the situation at hand, Bartz said.

Oxytocin has been shown in separate studies to have therapeutic benefits in autism.

"If oxytocin is somehow increasing people’s attention to social information in their environment, it may actually be very helpful for those who may be dispositionally less sensitive to social cues, like people with autism," Bartz said.

On the other hand, oxytocin has had less success in patients with borderline personality disorder, and the results from this particular study may relate to that, Bartz said. Oxytocin may be "unhelpful to those who are hypersensitive to social cues, and have this negative bias in interpreting those cues, like people with borderline personality disorders or attachment anxiety," she said.

Keep in mind, though, that this study looked at only 24 participants, all of whom were male, so further work should be done to confirm these results.

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