ESPE Abstracts (2018) 89 PL2

Oxytocin and the Healing Power of Love

Sue Carter


Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA


This presentation will discuss the hormonal and neural mechanisms that support the beneficial and healing effects of loving relationships. Love is deeply biological and has profound effects on our mental and physical health, pervading every aspect of our lives. Without loving relationships or in isolation, humans fail to flourish, even if all of their other basic needs are met. Two neuropeptides, oxytocin and the related molecule, vasopressin, and their receptors, form an integrated system that is at the heart of the biology of love and attachment. These peptides also help to explain the consequences of positive or negative relationships. The evolution of oxytocin allowed human evolution. Embedded in this system are neuroendocrine processes that regulate a sense of fear or safety across the life cycle. These in turn permit social cognition, social bonding, social support, growth and restoration. Oxytocin and vasopressin interact to regulate the functions of the autonomic nervous system, with effects on vagal and sympathetic pathways. Oxytocin also has direct antioxidant and anti-inflammatory consequences for tissues throughout the body. The oxytocin system is influenced by early experience, and oxytocin can epigenetically alter the expression of its own receptors. The capacity of oxytocin to regulate these systems helps to explain the pervasive adaptive consequences of social experiences for emotional and physical health across the lifespan. Knowledge of the pathways through which oxytocin and vasopressin act offers a new perspective on the healing power of love.

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