A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2023 | Number 1, Volume 37

New study of voles leads to surprising findings about oxytocin

Because the hormone oxytocin is involved in social bonding, multiple research groups have been testing the effects of oxytocin administration on the social behavior of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, a surprising new study reveals that oxytocin may not play as critical a role in forming social bonds as scientists believed. 

Prairie voles are commonly used in research on the social effects of oxytocin because unlike other species of voles, which are promiscuous, these animals are monogamous and form strong social bonds. In addition, they have a higher density of oxytocin binding in several brain regions. 

In the new research, Kristen Berendzen and colleagues used CRISPR gene editing to create three different lines of prairie voles with mutations in the oxytocin receptor gene that disrupted its function. The researchers discovered that the voles with the mutated oxytocin receptor genes exhibited the same monogamous mating, attachment, and parenting behaviors as regular voles. (In addition, they gave birth and produced milk, although in smaller quantities than normal female voles.) 

Devanand Manoli, a co-senior author of the paper, comments, “The patterns were indistinguishable. The major behavioral traits that were thought to be dependent on oxytocin—sexual partners huddling together and rejecting other potential partners as well as parenting by mothers and fathers—appear to be completely intact in the absence of its receptor.” He adds, “While oxytocin has been considered ‘Love Potion #9,’ it seems that potions 1 through 8 might be sufficient. This study tells us that oxytocin is likely just one part of a much more complex genetic program.” 

The new research may offer insights into the equivocal results of studies investigating the effects of oxytocin on social behaviors in autism. Manoli says, “These behaviors are too important to survival to hinge on this single point of potential failure. There are likely other pathways or other genetic wiring to allow for that behavior. Oxytocin receptor signaling could be one part of that program, but it’s not the be-all end-all.”


Citations

“Oxytocin receptor is not required for social attachment in prairie voles,” Kristen M. Berendzen, Ruchira Sharma, Maricruz Alvarado Mandujano, Yichao Wei, Forrest D. Rogers, Trenton C. Simmons, Adele M.H. Seelke, Jessica M. Bond, Rose Larios, Nastacia L. Goodwin, Michael Sherman, Srinivas Parthasarthy, Isidero Espineda, Joseph R. Knoedler, Annaliese Beery, Karen L. Bales, Nirao M. Shah, and Devanand S. Manoli, Neuron, January 27, 2023 (free online). Address: Devanand Manoli,devanand.manoli@ ucsf.edu. 

—and— 

“Fresh questions about oxytocin as the ‘love hormone’ behind pair bonding,” news release, University of California, San Francisco, January 27, 2023. 

—and— 

“‘Mind-blowing’ study upends conventional wisdom on oxytocin,” Angie Voyles Askham, Spectrum, January 27, 2023