Oxytocin strengthens mothers’ neural responses to infant and adult faces


In a new study from the University of Tampere in Finland, nasally
administered oxytocin spray strengthened brain responses to pictures of
infant and adult faces in mothers of 1-year-old infants.

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neuropeptide that has an important role
in inducing labor, lactation, and caregiving behaviors in mammals. The
influence of oxytocin on the perception of faces, emotions, and other
social information has been widely studied in recent years by
administering oxytocin with a nasal spray. Studies have shown, for
example, that intranasal oxytocin administration may increase emotion
recognition and brain activity during face perception.

Oxytocin appears to have an important role in processing social
information and maintaining social bonds.  Considering that some
researchers have even suggested that in the future oxytocin might be
used to overcome problems in early parent-infant interaction, there have
been surprisingly few studies that test the effects of intranasal
oxytocin in mothers of young children.

The new study investigated whether oxytocin nasal spray has an effect
on the neural responses to faces in mothers of 1-year-old infants.
Given the role of oxytocin in early caregiving behaviors, the specific
goal of the study was to explore whether the effects of oxytocin are
more pronounced in response to infant faces. Brain responses were
measured with electroencephalography (EEG) which provides information on
the early stages of visual perception.

The participants were 52 Finnish mothers of 1-year-old infants.
During two laboratory visits, the researchers used EEG to measure the
mothers’ neural responses to infant and adult faces. Before each
measurement, the mothers were administered either a placebo or an
oxytocin nasal spray. A double-blind study design was used so that
neither the mothers nor the researchers knew which spray was

The analysis showed that oxytocin increased the so-called N170
component of the EEG signal in response to infant and adult faces. The
N170 component reflects activation of brain areas sensitive to faces,
indicating that faces activated these areas more strongly after being
administered oxytocin. The results did not clearly show whether the
effects of oxytocin were larger in response to infant faces than to
adult faces.

“The main contribution of this study was to expand experimental
oxytocin research to the mothers of young children who have rarely been
included in this type of studies,” says Academy Research Fellow Mikko Peltola from the University of Tampere.

“In the future, it will be important to conduct research with larger
samples in order to determine whether oxytocin specifically affects
sensitivity to infant signals because that is one of the key aspects of
parenting,” says Professor Kaija Puura from the University of Tampere and Tampere University Hospital.

The results were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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