Monday, August 20, 2007

Better Mothering Through Oxytocin?

Oxytocin may attain more visibility in both hormonal and behavioral therapy in the near future, following a recently released essay discussing the effects of the hormone itself and of regulator chemicals that can greatly modify behavior. Pharyngula summarizes and discusses some of the findings.

Normally recognized for its effect on mother-child bonding in mammals and for promoting uterine contractions and lactation, researchers are discovering a wide range of subtle behavioral effects related to nurturing and socializing behavior. Only mildly surprising is the effect of administered oxytocin on males as well – increased trust and empathy in social situations.

To complicate matters further, the presence or absence of oxytocin receptors and secondary messenger chemicals can amplify, cancel out, or fine-tune an organism's response to oxytocin secretion (which is itself influenced by a variety of factors, such as level of socialization). Genetic studies with knockout genes in mice suggest that they play a large role in affecting mothering behavior in mice.

Why is this of interest to us? First, as we have seen with the marketing of estrogen decades ago (and continuing today) as a "cure-all for all feminine ills" and a way for women to "enhance" and "improve" their personality so that they were more amiable and pleasant to men, oxytocin prescriptions could become the next "mood-altering drug" pushed on women. Additionally, because it is a hormonal supplement for what naturally occurs in our bodies, it is very possible that it will carry less stigma than currently offered anti-depressant drugs, perhaps receiving the label as a "more natural alternative."

Second, it is not far-fetched to expect studies in the near future that evaluate the "beneficial effects of oxytocin supplements" for new mothers, perhaps in an attempt to stave off the difficulties of Postpartum/Postnatal Depression and other postnatal hardships. And remembering how easily free formula samples have been marketed to new mothers concerned about their baby's nutrition, I have to ask: what anxious new mother would turn down a free sample of a hormonal supplement derived from the "motherhood hormone" that purportedly would make her a "better" mother?

It is often the case that the presence of a "cure" will pathologize any condition that could be treated by it. How long until a mother, or even a woman without children, who "lacks a nurturing personality" will experience social pressure to "correct her deficiency"?

Third, the research also discusses a possible link between oxytocin and autism, though the causality remains uncertain. Even as most men would shy away from a hormone labeled as "feminine", it is possible that further research could benefit people suffering from the spectrum disorder of Asperger's and autism, the majority of whom are male. But such benefits could be pushed out of reach, ironically, by the more glamorous application of oxytocin research towards feminine behavioral modification, or even by an impending backlash against chemical behavioral modification.

While actual applications of oxytocin are still distant, I believe that it is our responsibility to speculate and anticipate potentially problematic uses of technologies under development, and the impacts of this technology touch both deep emotional roots and far-reaching societal venues. More research into this field is certainly advised, but we should be wary of indiscriminate and superficial applications of a premature technology spurred by economic and market interests and not by medically sound or humanitarian reasons.

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