Link to article: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/284/1855/20170554
Or read the summary here on this site.
This week has turned out to be a hectic but good one, I’ve returned from the University of Liege just in time for my next paper to be published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The paper comes from the research in my NERC funded PhD with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews on the hormone oxytocin and its impacts on social and maternal behaviour, rather than the pollutant research I’m currently doing with the PHATS team. Like much of my work, the study was done with weaned grey seal pups on the Isle of May, and involved giving the seals specially designed doses of oxytocin to see what (if any) social behaviours the hormone affected.
There have been lots of studies that show certain behaviours are linked to oxytocin concentrations (including some of my own grey seal work!), but the problem with correlations is that you have no idea which side of the relationship is driving things. For example, it would be impossible to tell using only correlations whether increased social behaviours are causing high oxytocin levels, or high oxytocin levels are triggering more social behaviours. Understanding causality in such hormone-behaviour relationships is important so you can identify the ‘cause’ and the ‘effect’ within the correlation. It can be difficult to do outside of laboratory settings however, as the only way to test for causality is to either increase the hormone’s concentration in an individual via manipulations or knock out the functionality of the hormone using antagonists. Due to these difficulties, there is only one study (apart from the one I published today) that has ever given oxytocin to wild individuals, and while they did find changes in pro-social behaviours they had no prior knowledge of the natural oxytocin-behaviour systems in their study animals.
In our study we were testing whether oxytocin triggers individuals to stay close to each other, as we know from grey seal mothers that the higher their oxytocin concentrations, the more time they spend close to their pups. We gave oxytocin and saline (control) treatments to weaned grey seals that had never previously met, and recorded their behaviours after the treatments. We found that oxytocin not only triggered individuals that had never met before to spend more time together, but also reduced aggression between the two and the amount the seals investigated each other, an indication of familiarity. This makes our study the first to verify a naturally existing oxytocin-behaviour relationship in wild individuals, which is very exciting. Studies like this have been done in captivity using domestic, laboratory or zoo animals but it’s crucial to study behaviour and physiology in natural settings with wild individuals, as no matter how hard you try you will never truly re-create all the complex aspects of wild environments in a captive setting.
The treatments were all given intravenously (IV), as the more common, intranasal route of oxytocin manipulation was not possible with the weaned seal pups; they can close their nostrils and hold their breath for a long time! The success of this route of administering the manipulation means that other animal species, that may not be suitable for intranasal manipulations, could potentially have similar studies done on them in the future to help us understand more about oxytocin’s important role in bonding and behaviour. We also spent considerable effort designing the oxytocin dose given to the seals to be as low as possible while still having a behavioural affect. Many doses used in the scientific literature are much higher than natural concentrations, and there are concerns that generating high levels in study individuals could trigger behaviours that would never naturally happen, or have unexpected, and unwanted, side effects.
Despite the effort we went to in replicating natural oxytocin concentrations as much as possible for our study, the treatments still triggered some behaviours that are not naturally correlated to oxytocin release in seals. Low aggression and reduction of investigative behaviours are indications that seals recognise each other, and naturally occur after several days of living together, independently of oxytocin release. The behavioural changes in our study seals also unexpectedly persisted for several days, long after the dose would have been metabolised and broken down in the bloodstream. These unexpected effects show that we still have a lot to learn about oxytocin’s role in the formation and maintenance of social and parental bonds. If the hormone is going to be used to safely and successfully treat human psychological conditions such as schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders and post traumatic stress disorder (and there have already been clinical oxytocin trials for such conditions in human subjects), then more research is needed into the powerful effects oxytocin can have on our behaviour and neurobiology.