The dark side of love
The butterflies you feel in your stomach and intense happiness that takes over your body when you begin to fall in love with someone may not only be a good thing; it has a dark side, according to research conducted by a team at Northwestern University in Chicago.
The love hormone, oxytocin, reinforces social memory in a part of the brain that regulates our emotional responses in social situations. Translation: While oxytocin can improve positive social memories, it also strengthens stressful social memories.
Scientists at Northwestern University came across this discovery while trying to figure out if oxytocin could be used as a stress reliever. They divided mice into three different groups. One group had the normal amount of oxytocin receptors, another group had theirs removed, and the third group was given more oxytocin receptors.
The mice were put in stressful situations (such as receiving electrical shocks or being put into cages with aggressive mice), and it was found that the mice with more oxytocin receptors were more stressed out, more anxious and more afraid when put into the stressful situation again. Essentially, the scientists found that oxytocin does indeed strengthen social memory, but not only for positive and happy situations, but also for negative and scary ones as well.
“The findings are intriguing,” says Dr. Ryan Patel, a psychiatrist with Advocate Medical Group in Normal, Ill. “What the study points out is that the increase in oxytocin receptors led to increase in stress, not that more oxytocin led to high stress. If anything, more receptors and the same amount of oxytocin mean a wide imbalance of receptor to chemical.”
The researchers found this study useful for humans because the stress that oxytocin can cause leads to anxiety disorders and depression. However, oxytocin’s strengthening of positive social experiences can lead to emotional well-being. By understanding and realizing that depending on the social situation, oxytocin may enhance fear and stress rather than reduce it, scientists can figure out treatments that can reduce stress.
“It may be that oxytocin is involved in strengthening emotional memories, whether good or bad memories,” says Patel. “In that case, more oxytocin during positive experiences and less oxytocin during negative experiences may have potential therapeutic value.”
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