Oxytocin, know as the the love molecule or hug hormone, helps people get along better. When you hug your body produces the bonding chemical to help you connect to the person. A 20 second hug gets you a full dose. Even in monkey a spray of oxytocin helps them get along better.
Now, a new study is offering us clues, and a link between these two very different substances. It turns out that oxytocin might make social interactions more rewarding and pleasurable by stimulating our own cannabinoid system. According to the research, it does this by triggering the release of another wonderfully nicknamed chemical, the “bliss molecule” anandamide, coined as such due to the fact that the brain receptors it activates lead to increased motivation and happiness.
This is the first time that this marijuana-like neurotransmitter has been shown to contribute to the reward of being social, and also offers us further insight into how oxytocin acts on the brain. Importantly, these findings could help us understand the mechanisms underlying certain social impairments, for example in those with autism, suggesting a possible avenue to explore for treatment.
Rewinding a little bit, endocannabinoids, like anandamide, are molecules our own body produces that act on the same system that cannabis does, binding to receptors on various cells throughout the body called the cannabinoid receptors. Previous work has found that the endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating neuronal signaling from the nucleus accumbens (NAc), a brain region shown to be critical for the effects of oxytocin on social reward.
With more study there may be a way to help autistic and socially delayed children develop the bonding behaviour they seem to have lost. “We think that there is a disruption in cooperative oxytocin-anandamide signaling in autism,” lead researcher Daniele Piomelli told IFLScience.
This post inspired by IFLScience
The study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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