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Playing with oxytocin, autism, and wolves

Posted on January 21, 2013 by James Kohl.

Science 18 January 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6117 pp. 267-269  DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6117.267

The Promise and Perils of Oxytocin by Greg Miller [subscription required]

Is oxytocin the next revolution in psychiatric medicine—or an overhyped hormone that could make some patients worse?

Excerpt 1:  “One of the real deficits in psychiatry research is a complete lack of appreciation of evolution,” Pedersen says.”

My comment: Adaptive evolution is nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled in species from microbes to man. This makes it a function of olfactory/pheromonal input, and behavior is mediated by olfactory receptors, not by oxytocin receptors.

That’s why the epigenetic effects of food odors and pheromones are exemplified in all species and also why there are sex differences in behavior linked to estradiol receptor content in the amygdala (an olfactory processing center), but not necessarily directly linked to oxytocin receptor content in any specific brain tissue.

The difference in the genetically predisposed behavior of adult wolves and dogs is now attributed to exploration using only olfaction (sans vision and hearing) during the first two weeks of life in wolf pups. Downstream effects on subsequent behaviors that are hormone-organized and hormone-activated do not suggest that oxytocin would make better pets out of wolves.

Downstream effects of olfactory/pheromonal input on the gonadotropin releasing neuronal system and genetically predisposed species-specific sexually dimorphic behaviors loosely associated with oxytocin suggest that adaptive evolution be considered before attempts are made to use oxytocin to make the behavior of our ASD children easier to control than the behavior of wolves.

What if ASD’s result from disordered olfaction, as would be expected in the context of everything currently known about ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction, which has been modeled across species via their common molecular biology? Would we be better off if our children were raised by wolves than to be treated with drugs by psychiatrists?

Excerpt 2: “The human brain evolved to evaluate and maneuver in very complex social environments.” Pedersen argues that the role of the brain’s social circuitry in psychopathology is too often ignored. And that’s what makes oxytocin so exciting in his view. “One of the really cool things about oxytocin is that it probably plays a central role in the social brain,” he says.”

One of the really cool things about my model for behavioral development is that “Olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans.” Has anyone looked at oxytocin in that context (e.g., of adaptively evolved behavior)?

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James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl




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