Oxytocin Exposure During Labor Influences Offspring Development

Offspring demonstrated long-term, epigenetic changes in brain & behavior after a single administration of oxytocin (Pitocin) to mothers prior to or during labor

Online PR News – 07-May-2019 – Bloomington – The hormone oxytocin (also known as Pitocin) is currently administered in US hospitals to roughly half of all women prior to or during labor to increase uterine contractions. Oxytocin is also widely known for its role in the nervous system, generally promoting pro-social behaviors such as bonding and caregiving. In spite of its wide-spread use, the possible long-term effects for the developing infant of exposure to exogenous oxytocin during birth have rarely been studied, even in animal models.

A research team from the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, the University of Virginia and Northeastern University recently discovered that a single exposure to oxytocin near the time of birth can have effects in the offspring, including increases in social behaviors that may persist into adulthood. This work was conducted in the prairie vole, a small monogamous rodent that displays patterns of social behaviors resembling those of humans, including selective social bonds and males caring for the young.

Notably, offspring of oxytocin-treated mothers were more gregarious as adults, displaying more caregiving behaviors, even toward unrelated pups, and spending more time in close physical contact with other adults. These effects also were seen in infants cross-fostered to untreated mothers, indicating that the effects were not simply due to changes in maternal behavior. In addition to increases in gregarious behaviors seen in both sexes, prairie voles exposed to additional oxytocin showed lasting (epigenetic) changes in the gene for the oxytocin receptor and increases in oxytocin receptors in areas of the brain implicated in sociality, especially in males.

Some previous studies have associated labor induction with oxytocin to higher rates of autism. The present findings in rodents, using a single injection and a relatively low dose of oxytocin, do not support concerns that labor induction or augmentation may increase the likelihood of asociality in the offspring. However, the results do indicate that perinatal exposure to oxytocin can have lasting epigenetic and behavioral consequences, and suggest the need for a deeper understanding of the mechanisms through which the effects of oxytocin persist into adulthood.

W. M. Kenkel, A. M. Perkeybile J. R. Yee, H. Pournajafi-Nazarloo, T. S. Lillard, E. F. Ferguson, K. L. Wroblewski, C. F. Ferris, C. S. Carter* and J. J. Connelly*. (2019). Behavioral and epigenetic consequences of oxytocin treatment at birth. Science Advances 01 May 2019: 5 (5). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav2244. . https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/5/eaav2244 * indicates equal contributions.

About the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University: For over 70 years, the Kinsey Institute has been the premier research institute on human sexuality and relationships and a trusted source for evidence-based information on critical issues in sexuality, gender, and reproduction.