Doctoral Researcher paper in press: the hormone oxytocin and social cues

Ahmad Abu-Akel

Doctoral researcher Ahmad Abu-Akel and Dr Simone Shamay-Tsoory of Haifa University, Israel, have an article in press in the prestigious Journal Biological Psychiatry. In this article, titled 'The Social Salience Hypothesis of Oxytocin', the authors propose a novel theoretical framework that focuses on the overarching role of the hormone oxytocin in regulating the salience of social cues through its interaction with the dopaminergic system. 

Oxytocin is a nonapeptide that serves as a neuromodulator in the human central nervous system. Over the last decade, a sizeable body of literature has examined its effects on social behavior in humans. These studies show that oxytocin modulates various aspects of social behaviors such as empathy, trust, ingroup preference and memory of socially-relevant cues.

Several theoretical formulations have attempted to explain the effects of oxytocin. The prosocial account argues that oxytocin mainly enhances affiliative prosocial behaviors; the fear/stress theory suggests that oxytocin affects social performance by attenuating stress; and the in-/out-group approach proposes that oxytocin regulates cooperation and conflict among humans in the context of intergroup relations.

However, the authors note that none of these accounts are sufficient to explaining the myriad effects of oxytocin, particularly in light of the accumulating evidence revealing that these effects are dependent on a variety of contextual aspects, the individual’s characteristics, and can induce antisocial effects including aggression and envy.

In an attempt to reconcile these accounts, the authors propose a novel theoretical framework that focuses on the overarching role of oxytocin in regulating the salience of social cues through its interaction with the dopamine—another neuromodulator that is centrally involved in reward-motivated behavior and the assignment of salience to social stimuli. Specifically, the authors propose that this salience effect modulates attention-orienting responses to external contextual social cues (e.g., competitive vs. cooperative environment), but is dependent on baseline individual differences such as gender, personality traits and degree of psychopathology. 

In the authors' view, this model could have important implications for the therapeutic applications of oxytocin in conditions characterized with aberrant social behavior such as autism and schizophrenia. This is particularly important given that these conditions respond to salient stimuli differently, and in some conditions even in an opposite manner. 

Reference:
Shamay-Tsoory, S., Abu-Akel, A. (In press, 2015). The social saliency hypothesis of oxytocin. Biological Psychiatry. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.07.020