Oxytocin and a Kinder, Gentler Amygdala


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Researchers were able to predict social and charitable behavior by watching neuron activity in the amygdala – what will your amygdala be doing this holiday season? Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

New research shows that the amygdala is linked to social behaviors – particularly kindness and charitable behavior.

Decoded Science had the opportunity to speak with Michael Platt, the James S. Riepe University Professor in the psychology, neuroscience and marketing departments at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Platt worked with Steve Chang from Yale University and collaborators from Duke, to research how the amygdala influences these social behaviors.

It’s Christmas – Is Your Amygdala Telling You to Give to Charity?

Dr. Platt’s research links the amygdala to positive social behavior in monkeys – the researchers could use the amygdala’s activity to predict which monkeys were going to share a drink of juice with another monkey, for example.

In addition, giving the monkeys oxytocin increased their charitable and sociable behavior. We asked Dr. Platt whether the researchers found any patterns in the behavior over time? (For example, did the monkeys ‘get in the habit’ of being kind, and become more kind over time as bonds grew stronger, or was it a general trend of consistent behavior?)

Dr. Platt explained, “Because we were directly injecting oxytocin into the amygdala and using saline as a control, we were very careful to counterbalance our injections over time, and to include “washout” days between injections. This allowed us to look specifically at short-term effects on giving behavior but not at whether these effects changed over time with continued treatment. This is, of course, a critical question for using oxytocin as a treatment for social impairments.

It’s possible that effects might grow stronger over time or possibly the reverse-that the brain would attempt to “rebalance” oxytocin signaling by lower its own production of oxytocin or reducing the number of oxytocin receptors. We know this kind of “homeostatic” response kicks in in response to long-term treatment with various drugs.”

Amygdala Deficiencies and Anti-Social Behavior

What does this mean, when applied to anti-social behavior? According to Dr. Platt, “...differences between people or animals reflect intrinsic differences in amygdala structure or function, including neurochemical signaling. Such differences have been linked to anti-social behavior, social anxiety, and autism. Similarly, oxytocin signaling differences have been reported in disorders characterized by impairments in social functions..”

Amygdala: Not Just For Stressful Emotions

According to Dr. Platt, “Prosocial behavior can be predicted directly from the activity of neurons in the amygdala that encode the value of rewards chosen for others, and oxytocin delivered to these neurons increases giving behavior. So much for the notion that the amygdala only drives fear and anxiety!”

With research such as this, our understanding of how social relationships form will continue to grow. Decoded Science looks forward to hearing more from this research team!

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