Neuroskeptic on Media Neurons: Serotonin and Oxytocin
This morning I listened to science writer John Horgan interview Neuroskeptic, one of my favorite neuroscience bloggers. You can hear the entire hour-long interview at BloggingHeads, but I want to highlight the 7-minute section in which Neuroskeptic discusses serotonin and oxytocin. This section illustrates so nicely a) how neuroscientific research can become overly simplified, and b) why we should be skeptical about treatments we read in the media.
Neuroskeptic makes the point that “we really don’t understand fundamentally what serotonin or, in fact, pretty much what any transmitter does in the brain – what’s it role is.” He goes on to explain that serotonin neurons, for example, in addition to serotonin, also release glutamate.
This is important because the fact that serotonin releases an entirely different neurotransmitter “fundamentally goes against the whole idea that every neuron only releases a single transmitter.” While scientists have known this for some time, it’s likely that most of the general public is still in the dark.
Additionally, low levels of serotonin were once thought to increase depression. This led to people to think that "serotonin equals happiness.” In fact, I’ve even been known to joke that my morning runs are essentially my attempt to chase serotonin, aka happiness. But such a definition is overly simplistic.
Over the past few years, oxytocin has become a popular media neuron (media neuron: a neuron that gains a lot of media attention). In fact, Neuroskeptic dubs it the “new serotonin.”
“Now people are saying that oxytocin equals trust, or love, or hugs, or something.” And now you can buy that trust, love, or hug in a bottle for the amazing price of $34.95 on Amazon!
A couple of years ago I was talking to a parent who actually purchased and used an oxytocin nasal spray for herself and her son who is autistic. She had read that oxytocin helps improve social attunement in children with autism. But Neuroskeptic points out that there’s a fundamental question that remains unanswered: does oxytocin sprayed into your nose even reach your brain?
It does in mice. But we're not mice. And the human studies have have issues, such as teensy weensy sample sizes. A lot more research needs to be done.
The bottom line: “There is just so much that is unknown.”